Based on a modestly successful contemporary play by Alan Richardson, Robert Hugill's When A Man Knows is a two-handed incarceration thriller. A man in a suit (Eddie) finds himself shackled and hooded in a disused factory. His incomprehension and outrage becomes belligerence as a woman (Pamela) arrives. Proud but defensive she weathers his sarcasm, pleading and bargaining, to reveal the reason for his situation and its possible outcome.
Despite its grisly narrative the opera has a regular tide of black humour. It's clear that there is a relationship between the two principal characters. The set-up echoes Stephen King's Misery and there's credibility in Eddie's early taunts referring to the 'kinky' element to his bondage. In fact, credibility is the principal characteristic of Dario Dugandzic's performance as the captive protagonist. He manages an abrasive self-interest in both his limber, consistent baritone and his body language. Above all he is always acting, using the score to maintain the character rather than to take a break from it. His part in the title of the opera may refer to two things. Not only is it the revelation at the centre of the drama but also the late epiphany of a fate sealed. For me the chill of the denouement is all the more effective for Dugandzic's absorption of his role.
With the man in chains and apparently ignorant there's a heightened dramatic burden on the captor. Hugill's broad, lyrical strokes are well-served by Zoe South. Her expansive soprano is capable of both the plangent and the napalm-dramatic ('No negotiation!'). The highlight of the evening's singing was her central 'When my husband died...' aria, a peroration of partial catharsis in the style of Puccini.
Hugill's score reflects not only Puccini but also Britten. The Lucretia-like chorus duet of tenor (John Beaumont) and mezzo-soprano (Sarah Barham), often a semitone apart, recalls the Abraham and Isaac Church Parable, and operates as a further texture to the four-piece orchestration.Yet the musical language is basically original and pleasantly lyric, creating the line and space in which the drama can be properly sung. David Roblou conducts with vigilance. On stage, Ian Caddy's direction is tied, literally, to the limitations of the action so he doesn't attempt anything too ambitious, using the quirks of the space and trusting in Mark Haskins' economical and responsive lighting.
One footnote of misgiving though - and read on with care as this reveals part of the plot. Pamela's revelation of her own death sentence, knowingly conferred by Eddie, is an awkwardly handled sequence. To many, the very word AIDS has its own dreadful and indeed dramatic connotation. However, as with all terms of connotation, this wears with time, not to mention the ironic deconstruction of pop culture. It's dramatic impact was for me equivocal - but worse than that, the chorus then go on to repeat the expanded acronym as a mantra ('Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome...') which has all the pathos of a loss-adjuster's inventory, i.e. none. The dramatic nexus of the opera and the delivery of the text on which it was being communicated for me were clearly out of synch at this point.
When A Man Knows is a carefully assembled opera full of good music well-sung. It clearly works as I found myself recharged rather than depressed after leaving the theatre. I would recommend a visit to the staged production but, remarkably, there is also the opportunity to watch a concert performance online (largely the same cast under the auspices of Tête à Tête opera).