Based on a short story by D. H. Lawrence, Rocking Horse Winner is a one-act opera presented by Tapestry Opera in association with Crow’s Theatre. Michael Hidetoshi Mori’s production is sombre and elegant. Though I struggled to connect emotionally to this very cerebral fable, that is likely by design.
Young Paul (Asitha Tennekoon) lives with his widowed mother, Ava (Lucia Cesaroni). A luxurious curving staircase is a pivotal aspect of Jawon Kang’s set (based on original designs by Camellia Koo). Leading up from the mother’s grand piano to her son’s massive bedroom with its imposing arch windows, the minimalist design suggests palatial grandeur that is eerily cold and vacant.
Ava clings to her piano and sherry to compensate for the great disappointment of her life. We sense she’s a reluctant mother, trapped in a role she never really wanted. There is some threadbare affection between them, but neither quite knows how to deal with each other or their unsatisfying lives. She relentlessly laments to her son, drilling into his head the loaded notion of luck and their lack of it. For her, luck is allusive and alluring, synonymous with money and of paramount importance.
The house itself speaks to Paul, echoing the mother’s desperate lust for wealth. Represented in operatic form by Midori Marsh (Soprano), Alex Hetherington (Mezzo-Soprano), Anika Venkatesh (Tenor) and Korin Thomas-Smith (Baritone); it whispers to him: “There must be more money.” Determined to be “lucky,” and, ultimately, make his mother happy, he rides his rocking horse with steadily increasingly fervour. This sends him into a hyper-aware state where the winner of each upcoming horse race is revealed to him.
The score (by Gareth Williams) and libretto (by Anna Chatterton) imbue these absurdist, exhilarating sequences that feel sub-textually sexual. Paul riding his pretend horse with progressive violence, shouting “take me there,” reaching an intense climax and collapsing into an exhausted heap afterwards feels distinctly orgasmic. Perhaps, above any financial gain afforded to him, it is the sensual escape from a dismal life that is the true aim of his impassioned efforts.
Paul’s uncle, Oscar (Keith Klassen) and the caretaker of the house, Bassett (Peter McGillivray) take advantage of Paul’s apparent clairvoyant gift and their betting reaps financial rewards. Ava never seems satisfied, spending all the winnings quickly yet never satiated. Just wanting to see his mother smile, his final, feverish exertions on the rocking horse are too much for him and he collapses for the last time, dying alone.
This is very heady stuff and all aspects of the handsome production conspire to evoke a stifling atmosphere of psyches warped by greed and desire. Mother and son are pathetically isolated, entrenched in their own fantasies—doomed. They never achieve the consolation of emotional connection. The closest to real joy either of the two experience is Paul’s ritualistic and frenzied rides.
As I mentioned earlier, my investment was almost entirely intellectual and that detachment feels deliberate. The cold chant of “there must be more money” is uncomfortably resonant. As lofty and expansive as our existence seems to us, we are constantly reminded that modern life—and our essential humanity within it—is deeply entrenched in the phenomenon of money. Rocking Horse Winner feels like a warning, sure, but more potently, it conveys a yearning for transcendence.