Operatic adaptation of D.H. Lawrence story is effective, but there could be a deeper emotional connection
ROCKING HORSE WINNER by Anna Chatterton and Gareth Williams (Tapestry Opera/Scottish Opera). At Berkeley Street Theatre. May 27-June 4. See listing. Rating: NNN
A concise chamber opera, Rocking Horse Winner demonstrates that it’s not always lucky to have luck.
Adapted from the D.H. Lawrence short story by librettist Anna Chatterton and composer Gareth Williams, the Tapestry Opera/Scottish Opera co-pro makes some changes to the tale. The young boy at its centre, Paul (Asitha Tennekoon), is here an older child with developmental challenges. His mother, Ava (Carla Huhtanen), remains a distant, ambivalent parent who knows she should love her child but seems incapable of doing so.
He senses she’s not happy – she doesn’t laugh or smile – and figures family finances are the reason. When she tells him they have no luck and therefore no money, he tries to figure out how to get both. His vehicle, metaphoric and literal, is the rocking horse of the title: by riding it and working himself into a frenzy, Paul can predict winning horses at the track.
That benefits not only Ava but also her finagling gambler brother, Oscar (Keith Klassen), and Paul’s caregiver, Bassett (Peter McGillivray), until a tragic final race.
The most striking change to Lawrence’s story gives the house a voice through a chorus of four, who play figures in the past and in a ghostly fashion keep echoing the need for more money.
Chatterton’s text is spare but clear, Williams’s score for string quartet and piano mostly gentle and always appealing under Jordan de Souza’s musical direction. Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori shapes the action well on Camellia Koo’s two-level set costume designer Ming Wong relies on generally understated colours and dresses the chorus in shades of grey.
The standouts are tenor Tennekoon, who captures Paul’s boyish enthusiasm (he builds up to orgasmic agitation to divine the winning horses) and occasional tantrums, and the splendid Huhtanen’s disconsolate Ava, whose diction is as sharp as her acting.
The only element missing is an emotional connection for viewers the show, fine as it is, remains cool and distanced.