Heart of Darkness

Tarik O’Regan

Tom Phillips

Performance forces:
2 sop, 6 ten, 3 bar, bass — fl/alt/picc, cl/Eb/b cl, cl/bcl, cor, perc, hp, acoustic git, pno/cel/harpsichord/chamber organ, 2vln, vla, 2vc, db



The opera opens with two snapshots: first Marlow, an old sea-captain, in a moment of recollection; next, a fragment of a mysterious encounter many years earlier, whose meaning only becomes clear at the end. The action takes place concurrently on a ship, moored in the Thames Estuary, and, many years earlier, during Marlow’s expedition to Central Africa. Instrumental prelude. Marlow is among a small group of passengers aboard a ship moored in the Thames one evening, waiting for the tide to come in. He starts to relate the tale of his travels as a young man, when he sailed upriver in the equatorial forest of an unnamed country in Central Africa (which closely resembles the Congo Free State, a large area in Central Africa controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium from 1885-1908). He has been sent there to find Kurtz, the enigmatic and once idealistic ivory trader rumoured to have turned his remote Inner Station into a barbaric fiefdom. Marlow’s journey starts in the Company’s offices in Europe, where he is given his instructions and a perfunctory medical check, before he departs for Africa. He arrives first at the Downriver Station and encounters the Accountant who first mentions Kurtz. Marlow then comes to the Central Trading Station where he meets the Manager who will accompany him on the voyage. The expedition is delayed because the steamboat on which they will sail is damaged. Waiting for vital spare parts to arrive, Marlow befriends the boilermaker, who sheds more light on Kurtz. Marlow finds a cryptic note dropped by the Manager, which hints at Kurtz’s instability. The missing rivets arrive and the boat is fixed. The voyage progresses briskly, despite being attacked by unknown assailants. Eventually Marlow and his entourage arrive at the Inner Station, where Kurtz is based, together with his peculiar acolyte, the Harlequin. The Manager finds Kurtz’s enormous hoard of ivory which he hurriedly carries onboard the boat. At last Kurz appears. He is gaunt, thin and ill. He has a letter to give Marlow. A mysterious River Woman sings a lament. The Harlequin reveals that it was Kurtz who ordered the attack on Marlow’s steamboat. Marlow and Kurtz speak for the first time. Marlow sees Kurtz is on the edge of madness. He must be taken back downriver. On board the steamboat Kurtz becomes delirious, reflecting incoherently on his imperious ideas and deeds as the boat sails away from the Inner Station. Eventually Kurtz dies, uttering “The horror! The horror!” Instrumental threnody. We now witness in full the fragment of conversation seen at the start: back in London, Marlow meets Kurtz’s fiancée to pass her the letter that Kurtz had entrusted to him. Despite all that he has seen and understood, Marlow is unable to bear witness to the truth. He is unable to tell her Kurtz’s final words. We in turn see that Marlow himself has played his part in maintaining the secrecies of horror he finds so abhorrent. Back on the Thames Estuary, the tide has risen. Marlow’s tale is at an end. His isolation from the truth of his actions and the atrocities witnessed – that “vast grave of unspeakable secrets” in which he speaks of being “buried” – is borne out in his epilogue: “we live, as we dream, alone”. Chamber opera in one act based on the novel by Joseph Conrad. Can be cast with 8-12 singers.