The 1985 South Bank Show interview with Francis Bacon is a television classic. In it, presenter Melvyn Bragg went out to lunch with the painter in Soho. In the course of an afternoon, the encounter turned more liquid than lunch, and the normally magisterial Bragg became progressively more sozzled while Bacon, to whom this was an almost daily routine, remained comparatively in command. It is both critically acute and high English comedy of manners. Bacon shines in his commitment to his work and his ruthless self-criticism, while Bragg is reduced to burbles. Subjective artist and objective presenter? No, the roles are reversed. It is as if Bacon deconstructs the interview format and reassembles it in the style of one of his own paintings.
At first one wonders why Stephen Crowe would want to set this to music: what would music add? However, in the event it proves a shrewd choice, because the music both heightens and comments on the interaction of the two characters. Bragg (baritone Oliver Brignall) becomes almost hysterical in his adulation of the painter, his voice leaping into the falsetto range in his excitement. Bacon, in a cool and commanding performance from tenor Christopher Killerby, sings of his longing to find the image beyond reality, the image which he sees out of the corner of his eye, as it were. The score is for piano – not a piano reduction, for the piano is on the right scale for this chamber piece. It is resolutely atonal, but teeming with detail. It also hints, in Bacon’s yearning for the perfection he can never achieve, at wisps and fragments of melody. It is beautifully played by Elspeth Wilkes.
The opera is not entirely sung. There are extended parts of the interview which are spoken, although it’s not entirely clear why certain sections are chosen for musicalisation over others. To some unattuned ears this work might be hard going; but as a piece of music theatre there is more than enough going on, in terms of character, conflict and comedy, to overcome any aural hurdles the listener might encounter.