Taking as its inspiration Lorca’s 1928 play Amor de Don Perlimplín con Belisa en su jardín, Edward Lambert’s The Cloak and Dagger Affair is a curious portrait of a very odd marriage. The aged Don Perlimplín has just taken on the sizzlingly erotic young Belisa as a wife; she has already been unfaithful, but her infatuated elderly husband claims not to care. Her rising passion for a mysterious stranger, seen in the garden in a red cloak, seems to sexually excite them both, as well as Don Perlimplín’s bodyguard Marcolfo. As night draws on, and Belisa’s lust waxes to overwhelming proportions, Don Perlimplín himself dons the red cloak and – stabs himself, dying in Belisa’s arms. Why?
In the Lorca, Don Perlimplín disguises himself as the red-cloaked lover, enticing Belisa’s affection only to break her heart, but with the aim of initiating that callous little organ into a new seriousness and sensitivity. In The Cloak and Dagger Affair, the subtle changes made to the Lorca rather preclude this idea: Don Perlimplín seems confused, either jealous of his own creation, or so jealous of a mysterious stranger that he dresses up as him and kills himself to punish said mysterious stranger… I couldn’t quite get my head around it. The plot, ultimately, left me at a loss in this adaptation.
That said, there are several successful things about this opera. The first is Edward Lambert’s beautiful melodic writing, with some particularly rapturous trios. Inspired by Lorca’s use of eighteenth century music in his original, Lambert translates the play into a bel canto opera, including three lyrical erotic songs in Spanish. The artificiality of bel canto certainly fits the sultry, deliberately posturing tone of the piece: Belisa and Don Perlimplín are each, in their own way, exhibitionists. The evocation of sensuality is also successful, both through the score and in powerful central performances from Fleur de Bray as Belisa and Andrew Greenan as Don Perlimplín: their characters ripple with erotic charge, while Kate Howden’s well-rounded security guard Marcolfo also seems to be getting in on the action (again, I was just completely stumped as to why). De Bray and Greenan bring tension and poise to the stage, singing with lyricism and lustrous tone, while Howden’s mezzo is a treat in itself. Almost all the action is focused, as you might expect, on a large double bed, the main feature of director Jaered Glavin’s set, to a piano accompaniment played gracefully by the composer, conducted by Thomas Payne. We occasionally get some additional, castanet-like percussion from the company, but it detracts from rather than adds to the score.
Last year’s offering from The Music Troupe was an excoriating, exhilaratingly futuristic vision of gender dynamics at war (my review here): this year’s, by contrast, is a historical exploration of a very murky, weird marriage, suffused with academic detail and constructed to sound deliberately archaic in opera terms (Lambert introduced it, rather charmingly, as “music that went out of fashion some two hundred years ago”). While the music offers much in the way of loveliness, and it’s an entertaining listen, the opaqueness of the narrative leaves the ending perplexing, rather than profound. Ultimately, despite a talented cast, this piece doesn’t make enough sense on stage, and consequently lacks the punch of its predecessor.