Thursday, 28 April 2016

Romantic Fictions

Gaetano Donizetti
Royal Opera House, until May 19

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, April 29
Act III/iii of the Royal Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey

The renown of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has long rested on a single moment, the mad scene in which Lucia emerges, covered in the blood of the man she has just murdered, and wanders among her wedding guests, singing tenderly of her impending marriage to her former lover. The music here is strikingly different to the rest of the opera: dramatically static and with a musical pace that incorporates moments of total suspension, it is dominated by a highly exposed and ornamented soprano line which, if it wasn’t already hard enough to sing by itself, also demands that the soloist effectively take full control of the orchestra and glory in her vocal talents at precisely the moment the character loses control of herself.

The scene’s exceptional quality is underscored by the (originally intended) use of a solo glass harmonica, an instrument whose other-worldly timbre was for Donizetti and his audience strongly associated with fragile femininity, mesmerism and madness (there is evidence that the instrument fell from favour in the nineteenth century because of fears that its players would go insane). Successful performances of the scene carry immense music-dramatic force, and numerous sopranos have made their careers from shining at this highly exposed moment. But the greater the success, the more pressing the question: what was it that drove Lucia mad?

In Walter Scott’s novel the causes are manifold – Lucy’s mother’s pathological social ambitions; her own obsession with romantic fiction; the apparitions of her murdered ancestress (the “bride of Lammermoor” of the title). The denouement possesses all the inexorability of a tragic fate. Opera commands its own kind of inexorability, of course, which more than makes up for the lack of recourse to narrative detail. But Lucia’s off-stage passage from tragic bride in the second act to deranged murderer in the third always retains something of its disjunctive force, smoothed over only by the fact that most in the audience are already keenly aware of what is about to happen.

A new Royal Opera staging, directed by Katie Mitchell and conducted by Daniel Oren, grapples with this issue in an unusual – and unusually interesting – way. Its success derives largely from a forcefully feminist interpretation of the piece in which the male characters are denied dramatic gravity. This extends even to Edgardo, Lucia’s secret lover and her brother’s sworn enemy. Lucia dresses as a man for their First Act tryst, and on hearing Edgardo’s confession that he must leave for France, she tears off his clothes, strips down to her billowing underwear and mounts him. The repeated pizzicato chords underpinning the soaring duet “Verrano a te sull’aure” (whose melody returns in fractured form during the mad scene) provide the rhythm.

When it comes to Arturo’s murder, the action (usually off-stage) is intentionally farcical: Lucia tempts Arturo into bed while Alisa hides with a cake knife. But the stab wound isn’t fatal; nor are subsequent attempts to bludgeon and shoot him: the stunned Arturo just keeps getting up again. The women eventually smother him with a pillow. It’s pure silent comedy slapstick, with an uncanny twist given that what we hear in the auditorium and see on the rest of the stage at this time is the “tower scene”, where Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel – for much of the nineteenth century this represented the opera’s dramatic highpoint.

The tragedy comes moments later when Lucia loses her baby by Edgardo, a miscarriage brought on not by the “violence” of the murder, but by Lucia’s having strapped herself into a corset and crinoline for her wedding to Arturo. She returns to the stage for the mad scene, therefore, covered not in Arturo’s blood, but in her own, a victim not merely of the paraphernalia of patriarchal oppression but of her own failed attempt to take control of her own destiny.

Lucia’s death is not, then, only the “social tragedy” of an unstable young girl, but a tragedy in the full, heroic sense of the term. Mitchell’s cause is aided by Vicki Mortimer’s bifocal stage designs, in which the stage is often split into two halves, the action in each half happening independently of the other (hence Arturo’s murder during the Tower scene, or Lucia’s getting dressed during the opening hunting scene). It sounds distracting, but is really just an extension of techniques so common on opera stages as to be unremarkable. The sets themselves – Lucia’s green-tiled bathroom with its ominous tub placed front-centre; the eerie gothic splendour of the Lammermoor grounds – are superbly achieved, while the sometimes crowded details draw the relevant cultural narratives precisely and powerfully into the storytelling. When Enrico compels Lucia to marry Arturo, he asserts his power not merely by penetrating the private space of her boudoir, and even bathroom, but by removing her paintings, books, maps. While Scott’s Lucy is a romantic, whose vulnerability derives from the fact that she is divorced from political reality, Lucia is here herself represented as the danger, her literary interests conceived not in terms of escaping reality but in gaining power over it.

In this sense, Mitchell and Mortimer’s inspiration might well have come from the casting of the German soprano, Diana Damrau, in the title role. Damrau has performed the role all over the world, but her voice, while it has the gymnastic flexibility of a coloratura specialist, carries the weight and tonal depth of a dramatic soprano, much better suited to a depiction of the character as capable young woman than as helpless girl. And as Damrau demonstrates, her characterization renders the mad scene unforgettably potent.

Damrau’s performance is stunning throughout, and ably matched by Ludovic Tézier’s grandly toned Enrico and Charles Castronovo’s richly lyrical Edgardo. To Mitchell’s credit, both men play the roles straight. The chorus and orchestra also manage impressively to sustain the musical atmosphere, despite Oren’s lacklustre conducting. No surprises there; nor in the boos that greeted the production team on the first night.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Cyborgs and Psychopaths

Rolf Wallin
Oslo Opera House, until April 2

Modest Mussorgsky
Royal Opera House, until April 5

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, March 25

Ketil Hugaas and Nils Harald Sødal in ‘Elysium’. Photo: Erik Berg

Elysium, a new opera by the Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin and the British librettist Mark Ravenhill, begins with one of family life’s most ordinary scenes. A mother is comforting her son, who has woken from a nightmare about monsters. The strings slide in eerie glissandi, with shimmering percussion. Mute rhythmic punches issue from the brass but don’t go anywhere. The boy wants to keep his light on and asks how many human beings there are in the world. As questions go, it is ordinary enough. Yet his mother’s answer is not. There are forty humans, she reminds him. The thousands of humans in the books are all from long ago. Just forty are left.

It gets stranger. The forty humans live on an island where they are kept alive by the “transhumans” who occupy the rest of the planet. Transhumans – the “monsters” of the little boy’s imagination – are peace-loving cyborgs, who live as long as they want, can buy new skin and organs when the old stuff wears out, and whose every desire is effortlessly met through the equipment of each with networked electronic implants. These allow the species of the future to forgo the vagaries of verbal communication, indeed of all representational media, in favour of direct emotional exchange. The flow of feeling can be heard in an elaborate weave of high-pitched melismatic lines, produced mostly by electronic instruments but with acoustic instruments sometimes integrated into the flow.

When the first transhuman we encounter meets the boy’s mother, they are drawn to each other by a desire to change places. The mother (sung by Lina Johnson) wants the material freedoms of the super-species; to escape her island prison and live out her dreams. The transhuman (sung by Eli Kristin Hanssveen) wants the freedom associated with dignity and moral autonomy; she wants to dream her dreams, not live them. For fifteen years she has relearnt the capacity for human speech, but the mother only wants to hear her transhuman “noise”, which issues forth in a stream of pointillist coloratura, both mesmerizing and featureless. They become lovers.

Appropriately, at a time when every new opera must seemingly present its own critical reflections on the genre, opera is here both the medium and the subject of the work. The founding myths of the genre, in Renaissance musings on the reunion of speech and song to allow for the unhampered expression of our emotions, are present here in the barely embodied warbling of the cyborgs. At the same time, the island dwellers are also fed and watered for operatic reasons, to mount an annual performance of Fidelio as part of a ritual which allows the transhumans to witness their origins as mortal beings at once enslaved and liberated by their desire. It also eschews simplistic moral didacticism. There’s nothing particularly noble about the humans: the wife with her longing for new technology, the husband (superbly sung by Ketil Hugaas), with his need for brutal sex and dependence on endlessly repeated clichés about touching the sun, the neighbour with the tumour (Hege Høiseter), the son with his nightmares (sung with extraordinary poise and feeling by the treble Aksel Johannes Skramstad Rykkvin). Nor are the transhumans to be mistrusted. Even if their “liberator” Coraig (sung by Nils Harald Sødal) resembles a combination of Mark Zuckerberg and L. Ron Hubbard, he still offers the remaining humans the chance to join his cyborg race in being “uploaded” into the “singularity” – a perfect brotherhood of man represented by ecstatic ruminations on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Only the father refuses, in the end, ranting triumphantly about being the “last human”.

Wallin’s music is quite stunning, cleanly directed by Baldur Brönniman and wonderfully played by the house orchestra. Earthy, eerie, elegant, the score sharpens and shapes the imagination effortlessly. The pacing is impressive (this is his first opera) and the final climax nothing short of breathtaking. The score is nicely matched by Leslie Travers’s set, which represents the island as a three-storey steel-framed cylinder, which revolves, rises and falls; the roof is the stage on which they must play their parts.

And yet the enterprise left me cold. On paper the work represents everything for which opera nowadays should strive: provocative of deep thoughts without didacticism, it succeeds brilliantly in integrating its subject into the material of the opera. The meshing of electronic and acoustic sources is beautifully managed, as are the chewed-up snatches of the Quartet and Prisoner’s Chorus from Fidelio.

I still can’t decide whether the fault lies in the score itself, or with David Pountney’s direction. Certainly some of the fault lies with Pountney because, beyond the staging concept, there is scant evidence of a director’s hand. The blocking is messy, the gestures are wooden and, notwithstanding the spray of multicoloured fibre-optic cables coming out of the tranhumans’ costumes, no sparks fly; it’s all electronics, no electricity. Or so it felt to me. And perhaps it is my need for characters with enough emotional credibility to keep one step ahead of a libretto’s onward march which is at fault. Maybe I have not yet evolved enough to appreciate the cold, flat surfaces of the opera of the future?

No one could accuse Modest Mussorgsky’s only completed opera, Boris Godunov, of failing to provoke deep thoughts. As the Royal Opera’s artistic and musical directors, Kasper Holten and Antonio Pappano, write at the head of the programme (perhaps relieved to have got Chabrier’s L’Étoile out of the way), Boris is “an opera about power, about what humans are willing to do to get it, and how difficult it can be to handle when you finally obtain it”. It’s also another fine example of a music drama whose aesthetic force is bent on showing, not telling. This is particularly true of the opera’s first, 1869, version, which sticks much closer to Pushkin’s colourful telling and episodic ordering of the story, and ends with Boris’s death, resisting the temptation to twist the knife. Yet the original version of the opera is musically less rich than the revision and much less frequently staged. This is the Royal Opera’s first go.

Richard Jones’s staging should take its fair share of the credit for this storybook telling of the piece, which has just the right balance of whimsy and gravity to sustain 130 minutes of uninterrupted stage action. The prologue is preceded by a stylized tableau of the tsarevich Dmitry playing with his spinning top. Dmitry is masked, as are the assailants who sweep silently upon him, slitting his throat. The murder is so effortless it seems almost comic. But as the scene is replayed some six times throughout the evening, its power to haunt grows steadily, allowing one to grasp the kind of nightmare tearing at Boris’s conscience, eating away the delusions of this doting father and ostensibly caring leader with the inexorability of karma.

Miriam Buether’s two-level set, tiled with bells and other motifs from the opera, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s often stunning lighting design and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes – with their shades of Orthodox psychedelic – are all superbly conceived and executed. Pappano’s handling of chorus and orchestra is brilliantly paced and Bryn Terfel, in his first Boris, captures instinctively the role’s tragic psychology, his desperate desire to bury the past and yield to a bright future for country and kin. His voice is glorious and never overbearing, except in the scene where the full force of his suppressed psychopathology is revealed, through bared teeth, to the scheming Prince Shuisky. The supporting roles, too, are superbly taken, particularly John Graham-Hall’s inscrutable Shuisky, Ain Anger’s granite-textured Pimen (the monk who testifies to the tsarevich’s murder), and John Tomlinson’s cameo as the barfly monk Varlaam. It is a truly superb show, and while the production is brilliant, it is the heat flying off the soloists that really carries the drama into the auditorium.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Sacrificial acts

Gaetano Donizetti
Glyndebourne Festival, until July 15

Georges Bizet
Until July 3

Arthur Sullivan
Until July 4
English National Opera

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, June 6

Michael Fabiano as Poliuto. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

In an age in which the greatest threat to Christianity comes, not from competing religions, but from apathetic acceptance of its basic values, it is interesting to reflect on how astonishing the beliefs of early Christians must have seemed to their sceptical contemporaries. How bizarre it must have seemed to the citizens of the Roman empire, no less than to the Vikings several centuries later, that these people chose to worship a god who allowed himself to be reviled, tortured and executed by his enemies. How profoundly different must have appeared the believers’ desire to supplant the martial and heroic modes so crucial to the extant order of society, with a world view based on an idea of self-sacrifice and universal forgiveness.

The quality of this shock comes across sharply in the first act of Donizetti’s Poliuto, when Paolina, the Roman wife of the Armenian nobleman Poliuto, happens on the Christians practising their secret rites. Paolina is on the trail of her husband when she comes across the sound of singing, trembling as she recognizes his voice as he prays during the baptismal rites. As she looks around for evidence of the “bloody altars” on which she suspects the apostates pursue their foul and illicit worship, the distant but sweet harmonies of the Christians’ hymn take hold of her as she acquaints herself with the strangeness of a faith whose prayers seek forgiveness “even for their enemies”.

The ensuing aria, “Di quai soave lachrimae”, is one of those quintessential operatic moments in which a change in one of the characters asserts itself through the music on the audience. As Paolina finds herself mysteriously overcome by the “unknown delightful force” taking hold of her, Donizetti arrests the music’s hitherto frantic pace and broadens out the orchestral palette. The soprano line carves out a rising series of downward trickles which gain in force as the harmonic language absorbs some of the fluid stability of the foregoing hymn; the music paints Paolina’s passage from bewildered weeping to a sense of a “dismal veil” being lifted from her eyes. “Par che il devoto canto / ritrovi un’eco in ciel!”, she concludes (“it is as if the devout hymn finds an echo in heaven”).

Although the passage marks the conversion of Paolina’s heart, the rest of her does not follow her husband in his new profession until the end of the opera when martyrdom and the lions of Rome’s Colosseum beckon. Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano, no less than Corneille before them, are at pains to show that the martyrdom of both Poliuto (Polyeucte) and Paolina (Pauline) is voluntary; that the terms of the new religion are absolute, making false confession impossible. But Donizetti and Cammarano are equally sure that Paolina’s martyrdom is as romantic as it is religious: she goes to her death for her husband as much as for her God.

To conceal the grand conflicts of history and myth in the motivating psychology of romantic entanglement is, of course, the great smuggling trick of nineteenth-century opera. Poliuto does bring it off, however, remarkably well, Cammarano and Donizetti sharpening and softening considerably the characterization of the Roman pro-consul Severo, Paolina’s former betrothed, to bring the love triangle into greater relief. More significant, perhaps, is the way the opera ties the romantic experience of suspicion and self-doubt to the phenomenology of religious conversion, Donizetti’s light musical touch managing almost effortlessly to trace the passage of each character’s fleeting fears and hopes. From Poliuto’s lapses of faith, first in his new God, second in his wife, to Paolina’s confused conversion and Severo’s attempts to win back his former beloved, the emotions here gain their authenticity from their constantly fugitive status.

If it is remarkable that Glyndebourne chose to open their current festival with a staging of one of Donizetti’s lesser known mature works, the degree to which both conductor and director managed to capture the work’s dramatic subtlety is more remarkable still. In her second Glyndebourne production, the French director Mariame Clément has shunned grand gesture for a staging that focuses on the evanescent contrasts which animate the opera. The set, designed by Julia Hansen and sensitively lit by Bernd Pukrabek, consists largely of tall stone blocks which, when at rest, project a kind of cloying drabness but which when moved around to form walls, rooms and previously unseen openings, lead to an exhilarating sense of dynamic space in which the possibility of flight and concealment, hope and salvation are constantly coming in and out of view. Each scene is thus continually in a state of becoming, rather than fully manifest, which leaves it to the music to provide both the requisite monumentality and emotional depth; and also to the clever video projections, by fettFilm, which consist of momentary vignettes – civilians running for cover in a wartorn city, a bedroom window, billowing waves, a brilliantly green landscape – which come and go with the same speed as images in the music and libretto. Visually, the staging seems to take its cue from a parallel between Roman occupied Armenia and Sarajevo under siege, and the modern costumes are understated in their functionality, from Paulina’s frumpy respectable frock to the anonymous (though Soviet-derived) uniforms of the Roman soldiery.

Enrique Mazzola’s conducting is similarly subtle, keeping the pace high so that Donizetti’s sometimes rather trying “oom-pah” accompaniments never risk becoming leaden, with the London Philharmonic managing to combine a smooth, swelling modern sound with astonishing fleet-footedness. The singing, too, is as good as one could expect anywhere, with Michael Fabiano’s strident, powerful tenor capturing Poliuto’s rather pompous anguish. This contrasts well with Matthew Rose’s resplendent bass as the scheming high priest Callistene. The significantly more moderated approaches of both Ana Maria Martinez’s Paolina and Igor Golvatenko’s Severo answer well to the greater depth of their characters’ romantic conflicts: while Severo’s smooth and lithe baritone probably delivers the evening’s most exceptional singing, Martinez’s striking ability to vary the intensity and depth of her soprano yields the most memorable performance.

Poliuto was originally written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1838, but a proscription on dramatic representations of Christian martyrdom meant that its stage life actually began in Paris, where a translated and adapted version of the opera fared moderately well as Les Martyrs. Donizetti and Cammerano had attempted to distract attention from the martyrdom plot by making Poliuto fiercely jealous of Paolina and Severo, thus bolstering the animating role of the love triangle. It’s one of the few aspects of the opera which jars – the suspicious raving Act II’s Poliuto seems entirely disconnected from the serene neophyte of Act I – but it provides an instructive reminder of how difficult the consuming passion of jealousy can be to project on the operatic stage.

Certainly, the skill with which Georges Bizet channels the most destructive of emotions through the character of Don José remains a breathtaking example of how it can be done. That said, the opera has become so familiar that we often forget that José, rather than Carmen, is the opera’s real “character” in the nineteenth-century sense of the term.

There is little familiarity in English National Opera’s current staging of the opera, a revival of Calixto Bieto and Ryan Wigglesworth’s well received 2012 production, directed here by Joan Anton Rechi and conducted by Richard Armstrong. Here it’s not the modern dress and over-abundance of booze bottles and 1980s Mercedes saloons (a wry reference to Carmen’s friend) that defamiliarize the action, but the constant presence of imminent violence which, until it erupts fully in the closing scene, harries and menaces the occupants of the stage with a kind of orchestral virtuosity. The closing scene itself, with Carmen imprisoned by her “je ne regrette rien” code of honour, is astonishingly brutal. José, sick, deranged and raving, veers between his hopeless pursuit of the Carmen who tortures him in his dreams and his wish to annihilate the real woman, whose indifference reminds him of his increasingly deluded state. Finally, he drags his victim down by the hair and throws her across the stage. For once the knife attack has more than an ironic relation to Escamillo’s off-stage bullfight: Carmen’s murder here has all the purposiveness and pointlessness of a sacrificial act.

The revival is confidently directed by Rechi, and Armstrong’s handling of the score is rather more fluent than his predecessor’s. Justina Gringyte, debuting in a role which she was clearly born to sing and play, makes a strong impression in the title role both as actor and singer, while the tenor Eric Cutler, making his company debut, excels as José. An interesting extra tension comes from the way the grit of the staging grates against the luxurious sensuousness of the opera’s musical fabric. The polite duetting of Mercedes and Frasquita, for example, sounds wonderfully odd coming from Carmen’s drunken and mercilessly unscrupulous companions.

Such tensions – which can be invigorating to the knowing opera audience but rather alienating for neophytes – are strongly in contrast to Clément and Mazzola’s Poliuto, which despite the contemporary scope of the staging plays the opera very much within its natural dramaturgical confines. Such is also true of ENO’s other current offering, a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance directed by the latest of the company’s screen-star imports, Mike Leigh.

Leigh professes to hate opera, but his love of Gilbert and Sullivan is wholehearted and shines through benevolently in this affectionate staging. The director’s theatrical skill is manifest in the way in which he draws on the big spaces of the Coliseum’s stage – and on the exceptional talents of its orchestra, company and soloists – while projecting a show entirely in keeping with the modest dramatic scope of the operetta. The only ironies on the stage are the ones intended by the author and composer, and there are no grand effects of any kind. Besides the superb quality of the singing (especially Andrew Shore’s Major-General Stanley, Joshua Bloom’s Pirate King and Claudia Boyle’s resplendent Mabel) and playing – all wonderfully and instinctively led by David Parry – the only quality that really marks out the production is the elegant economy of Alison Chitty’s set designs, which use a giant circle cut out of the blue-sea backdrop to open and close the dramatic focus as well as provide a visual link with the kind of picture-book illustrative style with which the work’s fond anarchism marries best. Playing to a packed house, if the production was intended to convert new audiences to the production values of the modern opera house, ENO’s Pirates will take some beating.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Shifts and Shocks: Between Worlds

Tansy Davies and Nick Drake
Barbican Theatre, until April 25
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, April 17

Rosana Ribeiro (dancer) with Owen Ridley-Dominic (Younger Man) and Susan Bickley (Mother) Photograph: © Donald Cooper/Photostage

“I read somewhere”, writes Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old principal narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), reporting from the observation deck of the Empire State Building, “that people on the street are supposed to look like ants, but that’s not true. They look like little people.”

As with Wittgenstein’s famous Duck/Rabbit example, Oskar’s perspectival shift can be consciously manipulated. You can decide to see a rabbit, or a duck, but not both at once. But Oskar can’t shift between people and ants. For want of a more precise diagnosis, Oskar is what people used to call a strange little boy. He also lost his father in the attack on the World Trade Center two years previously. The emotional neutrality that allows people to change into ants isn’t really available to him.

This is not the case for the “Younger Man”, one of the handful of unnamed characters who make up the solo roles in Tansy Davies and Nick Drake’s new opera on 9/11, Between Worlds. As he arrives at a “very important meeting” on one of the South Tower’s upper storeys, the man’s confidence is shattered when he approaches the window. Assailed by vertigo, unable to maintain the professional sureness he is so eager to project, he involuntarily starts leaking nervous platitudes (his vocal line shifts from its concentration and becomes jumpy and uncentred). “People are dots and dashes,” he blathers, “just information. Just this glass between me and nothing.”

Whether we knew any of the nearly 3,000 who died in the attacks or not, a sense of incalculable loss still accrues to the memory of the Towers’ collapse. There have of course been many subsequent catastrophes where the loss of life was even greater, but 9/11 has a hold that defies statistics. The event has a liminal function in cultural memory, rather like birth or death in personal memory; memory bends into it, creating a vacuum which exerts a force on everything around it. That an opera has now been written about the inner life of 9/11 may appear inappropriate to some, but in another sense it was inevitable and entirely appropriate. The difficulty of doing it well, however, relates to the fact that cultural memory of the real event still possesses a hyperreality more potent than any possible artistic representation of it, and absorbing it into a fictional world, remarkably well achieved nonetheless by Safran Foer, seems absurdly remote even now.

These difficulties were evidently manifest in the compositional process of Between Worlds. Both librettist and composer remained unsure of what, exactly, they should take as their subject for over a year, and it was only after meeting the stage director Deborah Warner that they decided to deal directly rather than tangentially with the moment of the attacks itself. But, incredibly enough, there is little trace of these difficulties in the finished work, a ninety- minute one-act opera, which seems extraordinarily equal to its task. The two “worlds” of the opera’s title refer, ostensibly, to life and death. The characters trapped on the upper floor are imprisoned between the two realms, each of them coming to accept this in their different ways during the opera’s progress. But the title also relates to a kind of flourishing of sympathy – as it were a study of the gap between ants and people – personified in the link between a shaman-like figure who sits suspended above the upper platform, controlling lines of communication, and a janitor, whose task for the day transforms from one of setting up a breakfast meeting to one of guiding uncertainly those around him to accepting what must be.

Individuation takes place after the shaman appears to reconnect the telephone line; the North Tower falls, prompting the janitor to encourage – and force, in the case of the disingenuous husband – each to reach out to their loved ones and say “what must be said”, as the janitor puts it. There is a good deal of skill in Drake’s libretto, which makes much of the transformation of quotidian platitudes (“there’s never enough time”) to profundities, and uses contrasts between prose and poetry, American English, Spanish and chanted Latin, to map out the fast-changing poetic territory. Deftly framed vignettes supply just enough detail (an estate agent forgets her mobile phone in her hurried, frustrated departure from her recalcitrant toddler son; a businessman lies to his wife about going to the doctor, heading for the fateful “important meeting” instead) to allow embryonic characters to form, but care is taken to allow the event itself to act as a crucible for the real characterizations.

The libretto’s sparseness leaves plenty of room for Davies’s music to shape and transform the dramatic action. The vocal settings trace the shifts in diction without awkwardness, while the orchestra submerges everything in shimmering, jittering continuities which build up a musical version of the kind of inverted vertigo experienced when one is near a tall building, looking up. The aeroplane strikes themselves, eerily prepared by a sudden change in the Shaman’s muttering to a piercing, high-pitched whine (strikingly achieved by the countertenor Andrew Watts) and refracted by the chorus chanting from the Requiem liturgy, send the orchestra into wild paroxysms of hyper-activity which grind the present into an excruciating, lurching continuity. Davies also proves herself wonderfully adept in marking out shifts in the perception of time, using exaggerated rhythmic profiles to spur on the drama before dissolving them into oases of reflexivity. In the lobby scene, during which a security guard tries to reassure a crowd of confused individuals who, unaware of the realities of the situation, are still trying to rescue their palm pilots and briefcases before the markets open, Davies uses temple bells to shadow the panicky speech rhythms but also to undermine, piercing the chorus’s jabbering with its pure sound. But the rhythms subside when the (two) firefighters arrive, screechy tremolo chords in the strings stretching out their gaze as they take in the scale of the moment.

Michael Levine’s spare set of slight, suspended platforms cleverly balances the need for theatrical transparencywith the requirement for spectacle. A wall of papers provides a backdrop for Tal Yarden’s video projections, a wind machine periodically ripples the panoramic views of the city. The collapse of the North Tower is depicted in the entire paper wall’s coming down, like a giant venetian blind slipping its fixings; as the drama nears its conclusion, theatrical illusion becomes less and less necessary. Deborah Warner’s direction makes the most of the limited stage resources, although her talents are most evident in the way the chorus and soloists never seem ill at ease with the purposefully thin characterizations.

The opera’s most beautiful moment, appropriately, both musically and visually, occurs at the end, in a dance between the sister and the suspended corpse of the Younger Man. The pair twirl, to music of gentle movement and unspeakable intimacy, animated by the opposing forces of the sister holding down her brother’s body as the wire pulls it irresistibly towards the darkness above.

Gerry Cornelius’s musical direction is well controlled and the chorus, directed by Stephen Higgins, negotiates admirably the shifts between ritual chant and emphatic narration, splintering occasionally into differentiated lines. It was clear that the ambitions of the composer and librettist – both working in the genre for the first time – are at times frustrated by the spare economies of the set, and some amplification for the orchestra would help the music better establish its presence in the Barbican Theatre’s dry space. There’s also a sense that Davies doesn’t do enough to develop the role of the Younger Man’s mother (Susan Bickley), who is given the opera’s one extended aria and who remains centre-stage for the remainder of the action: much of the audience’s putative connection with the space between the “worlds” of the title comes through imagining it from the mother’s perspective, but her music doesn’t manage to hold quite enough weight.But the fact that the opera made its presence felt at all, creating something so beautiful and troubling against a backdrop of something so awful and upsetting, speaks volumes about the artistic talents of all involved, no less than it does about the power of opera itself to find spaces where it is still, against all odds, worth taking the trouble to sing what can barely be said.

Friday, 30 May 2014

A fair hearing

Spectacular staging - and failures of trust - in two new productions

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Coliseum, until July 6

Richard Strauss
Glyndebourne Festival, until July 3

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, May 30

Overtures play a variety of roles in opera. Often the function is a formal one of introducing the prevailing mood, or ethos, of the drama, but they are also used to prefigure the coming action, or to introduce the principal themes around which the musical drama is built. Mozart, in Così fan tutte, uses the “Sinfonia” to do all these things, by making the music apparently poke fun at itself, running rings round the pompous cadential theme in which comes to be inscribed the pseudo-moral edict of the title. And as an ingenious and irresistible piece of music which commits neither to being entirely frivolous nor entirely serious, it perfectly describes the philosophical scope of the opera to come.

There is a sense, however, in which all overtures serve the same purpose, and that is to announce to the audience that it is now time to prick up your ears, and listen. And in English National Opera’s new production of Così, this is precisely the element that proved problematic. The opening chords have barely registered before Despina and Don Alfonso, in the guise of a motel chambermaid and fairground shyster, bring a magician’s box out to the front of the stage, against the lurid backdrop of glittering circus curtain. A pair of circus artists climb out of the box, only to be replaced by another, and another, and another until the central area is crammed with exotic characters, who include a fire-eater, two dwarfs, a “Mongolian” strong-man, a sword-eater, a bearded lady and more. Each holds a placard which, when reversed, one by one, and in time with the music, spell out the sentence “Opera . . . starting . . . now . . . [Pause] . . . please . . . concentrate . . . for . . . sophisticated . . . arias . . . and . . . chocolate”. But then everyone jumbles around to reveal “Starting . . . now . . . women . . . love . . . chocolate . . . in . . . sophisticated . . . arias”, before further jumbles produce more and more nonsensical constructions. It is hilarious to watch. Indeed, so convulsed were the audience by peals of laughter, directed at the action on stage, that the music was nigh-on inaudible.

For readers who like things in a nutshell, this conflict between the stage action and music encapsulates all that is excellent and much that is distressing about the show – and by extension, about the way in which opera is considered in general. For in an art form which has always struggled to generate belly laughs, and the concomitant sense of total submission such laughter often yields, it is a triumph of some significant sort to have an audience rolling around in the aisles before the overture is even finished. And yet at the same time, for the action to be so intricate and intriguing that, even without the laughter, the music of the overture is reduced to a perfunctory role, is to lose the sense of its being an opera in the first place.

ENO’s new Così is conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and directed by Phelim McDermott. Neither has done a Mozart opera before, but the whole is so slick and polished that one would never have guessed it. McDermott and his ingenious designer, Tom Pye, have set the action on Coney Island in the 1950s, the conceit being that the fairground attractions and circus freaks conspire to build an environment in which the usual rules don’t apply. It allows for a riot of colour and garish imagery to contradict the prim silhouettes cast by the sisters’ skirts and twinsets and has some wonderful set-piece extensions, such as the teacup waltzer ride which helps seal the deal between the disguised Gugliemo and Dorabella. Particularly effective are the three rooms of the Skyline Motel where the sisters are staying, whose walls rotate so that characters may pass from outside to inside without leaving the front areas of the stage, serving to make the third scene of Act One (in Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s boudoir) unusually fluid and precariously balanced.

In the pit, Wigglesworth has clearly worked tremendously hard to balance his phrasing and to keep the singers within his fluid orbit. His usual repertoire is twentieth and twenty-first-century music, so he is used to giving a clear beat and pointed leads, and the orchestra respond beautifully, by and large. Even so, there were moments on the opening night when pit and stage came apart, during which Wigglesworth kept a cool head – commendably so when one considers that the problem was usually caused by excessive activity on stage. Indeed, with the exception of Fiordiligi’s impassioned Act Two aria, “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona”, for which Wigglesworth has, I think, demanded that the frenzied stage action come to a temporary standstill, there is a rising sense that Mozart’s music is not being trusted to do its work. And despite the staging’s many merits, this comes, increasingly, to feel like a waste.

The sense of waste is exacerbated by the use of the circus artists, who are of course spectacular to look at but consigned to operating at the margin of the dramatic focus in a way that seems increasingly awkward, especially as their principal employment throughout is the manipulation of the sets. There is a wonderful little set-piece, during the gloating exchange between the men in Act Two, when the bored-looking curly blonde who runs the drinks stall is joined, successively, by the other female members of the “skills ensemble” (as McDermott terms them), wearing matching wigs, echoing the growing intensity of Ferrando’s jealousy and the precariousness of Guglielmo’s bravado. But as the second act progresses their presence increasingly requires justification through dumb-show reactions to each new development, and becomes distracting and unwonted.

That aside, there are superb performances from the principals. The undoubted highlight is Christine Rice, who luxuriates in the comic potential of Dorabella and has every vocal nuance to match. Kate Valentine’s rich soprano is a little less naturally suited to Fiordiligi, but she acts superbly and rises to the occasion when required. Mary Bevan’s Despina, though lacking a little evenness in the upper register, is also well suited to the role, and possessed of a stage presence well beyond her years, which McDermott doesn’t hesitate to use. Indeed, although both Randall Bills and Marcus Farnsworth were admirable, and interestingly contrasted, as Ferrando and Guglielmo, by far the strongest couple chemistry was that between Bevan and Roderick Williams’s sleazy and, for once, clearly vulnerable Don Alfonso. A further highlight was the surtitle machine, which was broken, though pleas for the management to leave it that way have fallen on deaf ears.

If the production stumbles, then, it is for its basic lack of trust in the work itself. The very premiss that a kind of exotic space is needed to curb the absurdities of the plot is flawed in the crucial sense that it is Mozart’s music that drives the lovers’ fluctuating sense of direction, just as it drives the heat which allows the characters to fall in love in the first – and second – place. The question of realism and suspended disbelief is irrelevant because, as the opera tells us, love is primarily a question of characters and their dispositions, not persons and the contracts between them.

The overture to Richard Strauss’s first essay in the genre of Mozartian comedy is entirely unambiguous in its intent, as it is largely assigned the task of depicting the yearnings and writhings of sexual congress of a field marshal’s wife and her cousin and seventeen-year-old lover, Count Octavian Rofrano. Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s original idea had been for the curtain to open and find the two lovers breakfasting in bed, enjoying, in a manner strongly contrasted with the breakfast served to Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the sensuous and restorative delights of hot chocolate. But they were advised against sailing so close to Dresden’s prevailing morally conservative wind by the intendant of the city’s Königliches Opernhaus. Richard Jones, in his new staging of the opera, which opened the Glyndebourne Festival, goes better than both by raising the curtain to reveal the Marschallin stark naked in a shower of golden glitter. The scene is ravishing, discreetly lit and with the stillness of a pre-Raphaelite Venus, and the sight is audibly devoured by all sections of the audience and, from closer quarters, Octavian, who drinks it in with the easy calmness of one who fully expects the same again tomorrow.

It’s a striking opening, to say the least, and the act that follows it shows Jones, and Glyndebourne, at their best, with a gorgeously styled staging which revels in the task of colouring in a twentieth-century fantasy about an eighteenth-century liaison. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is in gleaming form, clearly delighting in the subtlety of Robin Ticciati’s wonderfully fluid conducting (rather too fluid in the overture, in fact, where the orchestra rather struggled to follow his lead). Kate Royal is in splendid voice as the Marschallin, floating moodily through her high-lying part. Tara Erraught’s Octavian, cast as a callous young Cherubino, matches her in tonal beauty but exceeds her in richness of tone; the frisson between the two creates all sorts of possibilities. There have in fact been overtly lesbian stagings of Der Rosenkavalier, but this turned out not to be one of them. Indeed, it turned out not really to know what it was about at all, as if the opening gesture was all show. To be sure, there is no shortage of ideas: there is the Octavian /Cherubino pairing, which is reinforced in Act Two by Octavian’s ineffectual stamping at the boorish Ochs’s vulgarity, and by the latter’s being wounded not by the thrust of a sword but by a thorn on the silver rose’s stem, haphazardly wielded by Octavian as he shrinks from the confrontation. Teodora Gheorghiu’s Sophie, meanwhile, is initially deployed as a bluestocking whose intellectual and romantic desires clearly outweigh the social ambition of her father – a sort of Straussian version of Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous. There are also cleverly placed references to Freud – who appears out of nowhere while the Marschallin sings her great “Da geht er hint” scene, recumbent on an exceedingly long sofa – and to proto-fascist sentiment in the Austrian parochial nationalism of Ochs’s son and servants. The costume and set designs, by Nicky Gillibrand and Paul Steinberg, are virtuosic, effortlessly traversing fifty years of change while keeping the visual lens firmly fixed on the timeless aspect of the fantasy.

But as in Così, there is an issue of trust here which seems to untie all these efforts. Indeed, if one thing has been left out of Jones’s exquisite dismantling and reassembling of the work, it is the work’s explicitly romantic heart. The result is that the staging eventually turns against all three principals. Just at the moment when the burning desire of the younger and the blissful compassion of the elder should triumph over all in soaring contours of the great final trio, each is instead presented as imprisoned within their own little cut-out worlds, denied any true meeting of hearts and minds. One hears it in the unsteadiness of some of the singing, and an inflexibility in the blending of the voices. One is left with the odd feeling that only Ochs’s role, played and sung magnificently by Lars Woldt, and the other minor characters whom Strauss and Hoffmansthal were content to leave stranded in the burlesque regions of the drama, are really permitted to flourish.

That said, it is gorgeously produced and played; this is Ticciati’s first production as Glyndebourne’s music director, and a good reminder of how well suited he is to the space, and of the delight he takes in fractional contrasts of texture and in the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum. Indeed, Strauss’s stipulation that the (large) orchestra can be held back where necessary in order to let the female voices through seems entirely superfluous. It’s just a shame that the staging seems to want to clip their wings instead.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Holy Communion

Musical explorations of the best of all possible worlds

Richard Wagner
Royal Opera House, until December 18

Leonard Bernstein
Menier Chocolate Factory, until February 22

Review from the Times Literary Supplement, 13 December 2013

Wer ist der Gral?", asks Wagner's Parsifal, shortly after recovering from a fainting fit. Having only just learned his own name, that the woman who gave it to him has died, and now that something called "the Grail" will give him food and drink (provided he is pure), he is entitled to a certain amount of confusion. The form of the question - "who", not "what" - is always taken as an expression of the naivety of Wagner's most naive hero. But it has always struck me as odd that Gurnemanz, the wisest and most trustworthy of the Grail's servants, fails to correct him on this point: "Das sagt sich nicht".

In the Royal Opera's new and, for fans of bicentennial celebrations, long-awaited production of Wagner's final opera, Parsifal's question - no less than Gurnemanz's obfuscatory answer - is more than usually significant. The Grail, it turns out, is a young boy, held in captivity by the brotherhood and brought out periodically from an opaque glass box to have his side pierced by a scalpel, in a position analogous to the Christ's wound. Naked but for a loin cloth, the grail-boy is then carried among the faithful who, having used similar scalpels to cut stigmata wounds in the palms of their hands, mingle their own blood with that of the boy. It's not the image of the mysterious relic and vessel of blood of Christ that most of us have in mind, but as a reflection of the brotherhood's fetishization of the blood of Christ, the idea has a shocking but authentically Wagnerian logic to it.

Very few staged Parsifals have ever really satisfied my idealized, naturalized picture of the opera as a work which makes perfect, beautiful sense, and which is capable of forming the core of a coherent, ethical picture of the world. But Stephen Langridge and Antonio Pappano's new production for the Royal Opera is the first that made me question my understanding of the work altogether. Is the piece simply too weird in its obsessions (its misogyny, its eroticization of the idea of atonement and de-eroticization of the idea of love), too nasty in its misanthropy and ultimately too schoolboyish in its two-dimensional characterizations, the elements of a powerful but overly simplistic moral-aesthetic philosophical system?

Some of this response comes down to Pappano's handling of the piece, which in parts - the Act One and Three preludes, the transformation music of Act One - is superlative. Combined with some astonishingly controlled and expressive playing by the orchestra, as ever completely responsive to the wishes of their music director, the music reached moments of otherworldly, hypnotic beauty. Put together, though, the playing comes across as far too choppy. The sense of symphonic process - crucial if the work is to retain its full gravity - is sacrificed in favour of immediate contrasts in emotion and texture.

The leitmotifs seem to jump out at one eagerly - look out, here comes Parsifal, here comes Kundry! - rather than emerging, as they should, as expressions of the music's inner thematic logic. The result is that both the music and drama feel unusually volatile, and strangely fragile in their foundations.

The same is true of Stephen Langridge's staging which, thanks to Alison Chitty's elegantly conceived design, gives the illusion of being crisp and clearly thought through but which, as things progress, begins to fall apart at the seams. This is a result of an entirely misplaced sense that things must keep moving on stage (if ever there was an opera where you can afford to let your cast stay where they are, it's this one), and of some equally misplaced directorial ideas. Act Two, in particular, is a mess; the flower maidens are singularly unprepossessing in their garish nightclub gladrags, and too many details are left dangling, such as the identification of four of the brotherhood as terrorist martyrs at the end of Act One, or Parsifal's blinding of himself at the end of Act Two. Chitty's central cube, which houses first Amfortas's sick bed, then the Grail, then Kundry's love nest, is also overworked, used to display flashed tableaux which recreate aspects of the narrative, such as Amfortas's seduction by Kundry, or Klingsor's self-castration. Progressively, the flood of unwonted details hijacks Wagner's carefully articulated dramatic arc.

This notwithstanding, the underlying idea behind Langridge's treatment of the drama is undeniably a strong one. The brotherhood are a sinister, secretive closed society, whose mistaken loyalty to Titurel's vision of the Grail as a literal re-enactment of the wounds of Christ has led to a closeted world in which sexual relations have been replaced by a kind of ritualized child abuse. Their final redemption by Parsifal takes the form of his washing away the wound rituals and replacing them with a virtual conception of the Grail as pure compassion. When he opens the central cube for the last time, the boy has vanished. Amfortas is released from the hellish duties enforced on him by his bullying father and exits with Kundry, the two reunited as lovers. Somewhat in the same manner, Gurnemanz is left to tend the corpse of Titurel.

The vocal performances are also mixed, Simon O'Neill's sure command of Parsifal's role hampered by his poor acting while Angela Denoke's sinewy characterization of Kundry begins to fall apart just as the role requires the voice to be at its strongest. The real triumphs of the evening are Gerald Finley's Amfortas and René Pape's Gurnemanz, both rock solid, beautifully paced and nobly acted. Amfortas's spiritual desperation in the second scene of Act One is among the most moving things I have witnessed on any operatic stage. Given the central motivational role played by our, and Parsifal's, compassionate identification with the character, it goes a long way towards rescuing the entire show. But Pape's Gurnemanz is powerful, noble and immensely compassionate himself: how do we square this with his unquestioned, continuing support for a regime that is rotten at its heart?

It is a nice though perhaps unintended touch that in the little stretch of garden which the Grail community must till, in the shamefully fallen state in which they find themselves in Act Three, the one fertile patch is precisely where the swan shot by Parsifal in Act One lies buried. Perhaps Parsifal's hunter-gatherer bent is his redeeming feature after all. Certainly, Langridge's reading of the opera as an imperative to set aside all crypto-mythological pursuits in favour of getting on with the practicalities of harmonious living bears striking parallels with the famous conclusion reached by another of Western civilization's most prized holy fools, Voltaire's Candide. Langridge's Parsifal simply strides off at the end, leaving his compassionate miracle to work its mundane magic by itself. But had he left his newly acquired flock with an instruction, it might well have been something along the lines of "il faut cultiver notre jardin".

Leonard Bernstein's operetta Candide!, like Parsifal, is not an easy work to stage successfully. A new production at the Menier Chocolate Factory, directed and slightly reworked by Matthew White, comes close to overcoming its many obstacles, however. Taken as a highoctane fairground ride of bravura ensemble acting and playing, and featuring some very creditable singing, it is also the perfect comic antidote to the excesses of the Royal Opera's Parsifal.

Presented as the creation of a medieval-style travelling troupe, with the action unfolding in a central rectangle but continually spilling up the aisles and along the galleries (and frequently co-opting unsuspecting members of the audience into the fray), the operetta rolls along at a tremendous lick, the more formal musical numbers emerging as natural and necessary pauses for breath. That said, many of the songs - particularly Scarlett Strallen's "Glitter and Be Gay", in which her coloratura roulades find a hilarious visual corollary in Cunégonde's pulling strings of pearls and diamonds from an overhead chandelier - are show-stopping in their own right. The sole problem in this otherwise flawlessly paced riot of musico-theatrical enchantment relates to the piece itself, and the way in which the El Dorado sequence is over before the audience has a chance to realize why Candide has no choice but to leave it behind. Just as Wagner suggested in his depiction of the Grail kingdom, the best of all possible worlds is no better than the worst when it comes to the basic need to live one's own life.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Stop, Look, Listen

Various venues

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 29 November 2013

At the conclusion of François Sarhan's multimedia opera Enough Already!(Lachez Tout), we find the protagonist facing down the audience, staring at us in total silence. He has Just distributed sticks of dynamite around the stage and front stalls and connected them to a detonator, and he now holds the plunger in its upright position, fixing the auditorium with an unfathomable gaze, inscrutable in its mixture of disdain and indifference. His body tenses as he shifts his weight over the plunger and . . . .

Well nothing, obviously - it's a piece of theatre, and this is the end. But it's a sufficiently unnerving moment to send shivers down the spine. Could this be the moment when opera finally becomes revolutionary, in the non-art-historical sense of the term? Not only does the piece depict an effort to cause a giant explosion, specifically designed to change the structure of society and unleash anarchy, albeit of a highly poeticized variety, but the performance seems to be a one-off (or so I thought at the time), staged, scripted and composed by someone I've never heard of. It is, furthermore, fronted by a mime artist whose control of every muscle in his body and face is such that it elicits a kind of involuntary submission, a nervous fascination bound up with the marvel of someone's mental states being so hermetically sealed that they are entirely unaffected by anyone else around them.

One learns to expect the unexpected at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, now in its thirty-sixth year and widely recognized as one of the most interesting and influential new music gatherings in the world, but the blowing up of the Lawrence Batley Theatre would have exceeded by some margin what is meant by "unexpected". Still, the explosion would have been an interesting one to observe from a greater distance because its purpose, within the framework of the drama, was not merely to cause damage but to distribute a highly volatile though sadly fictional compound called "Sibuline". Created by Adolphe Riouls (also fictional) in order to perfect the working of an automatic guitar, an instrument capable of playing by itself whatever has previously been performed on it, the concoction endows inanimate obJects with autonomy. The things around us are thereby freed from the tyranny of commodification and returned, as Heidegger might have put it, to the thingness of themselves.

Bobok, the work's fanatical protagonist, has reproduced Sibuline through reading about it in Henri-Jacques Glaçon's "Encyclopaedia of Imaginary Knowledge", and seems to intend his explosion to restore some dignity and richness to our relationship with our environment. I say "seems to" because nothing is entirely what it seems in this surreal opera and its series of interlocking imaginary worlds. The richness of Bobok's relations with the obJects around him is caused by (or is the cause of) the fact that nothing does what it is supposed to. The first scene is a veritable circus comedy act, Bobok balancing on collapsing chairs, leaping to answer recalcitrant telephones and attempting to read his beloved Encyclopaedia with the aid of lamps whose switches only ever turn on other lamps. Generically, too, the piece is radically disobedient: an opera whose only stage actor is silent, and where the musicians - distributed around the edges of the stage - also speak and chant, acting both as narrators and inner voices, vainly trying to keep Bobok's mind from straying (his urge to kick yapping dogs is a particular cause for distraction). Much of the action takes place on screen, but the sound - produced by two onstage Foley artists - is often at odds with what one sees. Collage techniques and location footage also collide on screen while towards the end, when Bobok returns to the stage to change his wet clothes (after swimming across the Vltava; the film portions are mostly shot in Prague, where Sarhan now lives), he uses the musicians' fingers to hang his clothes and then gets in a tussle with one of the Foley artists over the latter's Jacket, which is dry. Arguably, given that the Jacket only exists to enhance our aural sense of Bobok's own Jacket, he has every right to take it, and the sound artist soon yields, with a rather forlorn gesture of resignation.

The anarchic structure of the action is enhanced by a poly-stylistic and often ironic musical layer, which sounds improvised but is in fact precisely scored (for violin, electric guitar, percussion, keyboard and saxophone). Performed by the Red Note Ensemble, a recently formed and admirably versatile Scottish new music group, the music served less to add an expressive dimension to the drama than to enhance our sense of semi-automatic, anarchically conceived processes pursuing their own ends. The performances of the mimic Claudio Stellato, also a dancer and circus artist, and the two Foley artists, Julien Baissat and Céline Bernard, also had a bravura element. Perhaps the most striking element of the piece, however, and it holds this in common with much "classical" surrealism, is not that the opera's animating force is gradually dominated by a kind of violent call to arms, an irrepressible railing against the status quo, but that the only valid response nonetheless seems to remain a purely artistic one. The revolution the piece seems to call for, though it has many political extensions, is primarily aesthetic in nature: stop, look, listen.

Performed on the final day of the festival's opening weekend, Sarhan's wonderfully executed anti-opera echoed, in this respect, the "shadow opera" by the Norwegian composer Cecilie Ore, performed at the end of the festival's opening day. Entitled simply A, Ore's piece - in its latest incarnation at least - entirely lacks live performative elements, consisting of pre-recorded audio and visual tracks, and has neither characters nor a plot of any kind. It is perhaps better conceived as a kind of soundsculpture, which may be why the organizers chose to stage it not in Huddersfield itself but some 20 miles away in one of the galleries of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The "A" of the title stands both for Agamemnon but also for the Norwegian "allmenn", meaning "general" or "extending to everyone". The text, written in Norwegian dialect by Hilde Andersen and intoned beautifully by the deep, gravelly voice of Joachim Calmeyer, centres on Agamemnon's efforts to overcome his remorse at the death of his daughter Iphigenia. The figure of remorse is then refracted through a panhistorical lens in which acts of atrocity are Justified by the invocation of historical necessity and the bloody, self-fulfilling cycle of revenge.

In this respect, A offers something of a meditation on the central theme of Aeschylus' Oresteia, but much of its power comes from the circular structure of the musical presentation, in which gongs resonate remorselessly to create an oppressive and encircling soundscape that seems both ancient and directionless. Towards the end, the cycles accelerate, and the attempts to obliterate regret begin to reveal more and more cracks. The voice keeps returning to the details of Iphigenia's appearance on the beach at Aulis, her hair and luminous face turned against the ground. But the gongs maintain their order, impassive and entirely unmoved.

The effect of Ore's "shadow-opera" was somewhat hampered by the visual elements, which consisted of phrases and letters proJected onto four screens (which formed a square room around the audience) and gave the impression of a whizzbang PowerPoint presentation gone awry. But the piece retained much of its power nonetheless, and rather more so than the Norwegian composer's latest piece, Come to the Edge, composed for the BBC Singers and given its premiere the following afternoon. The piece uses Christopher Logue's poster-poem to enclose a selection of aphorisms on the subJect of freedom of speech (Washington, Lincoln, Shakespeare, Harry Belafonte), into which are woven extracts from the infamous trial of the Russian protest group, Pussy Riot. The music's use of simple, repetitive rhythmical patterns was interesting for its quasi-liturgical style and for the way in which individual words and phrases slipped in and out of focus, but its stylistic directness had the odd, unwonted effect of highlighting its political impotence.

The opposite effect was achieved later the same evening by the long awaited UK premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas's In Vain, given by the London Sinfonietta (the performance will be repeated in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on December 6). Like Ore's work, Haas's 70-minute piece (for twenty-four-piece orchestra) uses strikingly simple material so the expressive effect is more accumulative than immediate, but the sense of gradual expansion and contraction gives an extraordinary sense of a composite consciousness being roused to life. In political terms, this was Haas's intention, and the work was composed in 1999 as a response to the resurgence of the far Right in Austrian politics. There are two extended periods when the hall descends into total darkness. The musical material simplifies further, increasing the electric sense of listening and response on stage, and drawing the audience further into the music's constantly shifting ground. The first dark period ends with a single harp suddenly flooded in light. The image of ancient splendour, with the harp tuned to the natural harmonic series, is clearly marshalled as an emblem of hope. The second period is ambiguous and ends indecisively. Played with extraordinary commitment by the Sinfonietta under Emilio Pomarico, it is hard to imagine a more powerful - and, paradoxically, inspiring - expression of latent, impotent rage.

Monday, 25 November 2013

A human heart laid bare

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Coliseum, until December 7

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 22 November 2013

It may reflect an aspect of the evolving nature of opera performance that one of the most successful new productions I have seen this year happened to field one of the least distinguished casts. On the other hand, it may simply reflect my own peculiarities as a critic. Either way, English National Opera's first new staging of Mozart's Magic Flute for some twenty-five years - a co-production with Complicite - is remarkable for the absence of the kind of vocal charisma on which the idea of opera in general, and of Mozart's familiar late masterpiece in particular, by and large depends.

The reason for the production's success is twofold. The first is that the orchestra, under the direction of the inexperienced but calm, precise and energetic Gergely Madaras, recipient of the company's first Sir Charles Mackerras Conducting Fellowship, play their socks off, taking advantage of a spell in the limelight for a fine display of crisp ensemble and elegant but distinctly high-spirited phrasing.

Nor is the limelight merely of the metaphorical kind, but it derives from the orchestra pit having been raised much as it would in Mozart's day, to a point where, with a few steps, it becomes continuous with the stage. One notable advantage, aside from an increased directional clarity (and thus immediacy) in the sound, is that the usual rather silly attempts to marry pretend flute and bell playing on stage with their real, subterranean corollaries, could be sidestepped altogether. Both the flautist Katie Bedford and the celeste player SooJeong Joo rise (literally) to the occasion, managing the interaction with the stage characters with remarkable naturalness. In a nice comic flourish, Papageno himself takes the final celeste solo, shooing away Joo on her return from a coffee break.

It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of Simon McBurney and the theatre he founded now thirty years ago that the openly collaborative spirit of the staging goes a great deal further than this. Mozart's score is supplemented with radio-style sound effects, produced by an on-stage Foley artist and amplified (and electronically enhanced) from their source to the right of the stage, which takes the form of a glass cupboard, stocked with buckets of gravel, bottles, metal sheets, etc. Across to the left is the similarly low-tech origin of the maJority of the visual effects. These comprise a chalk board, a row of fake book spines representing the walls of Sarastro's domain, and a handheld camera used to proJect images onto the backdrop, scrim, or the suspended platform that forms the central section of the stage. The effects range from the informative ("The Magic Flute, by W A Mozart") to complex designs interacting with the stage movement, and only on one or two occasions (the trials by fire and water) are they generated by anything more high-tech than a man showing images of something he has Just drawn with chalk. Another lovely touch comes with Papageno's birds, simple folded leaves of paper given vivid life by Complicite actors. Their response to Papageno's countdown to threatened suicide - flutter, droop, drop - is quite heartbreaking.

There's an extra dimension to McBurney's direction, however, in that his intention is clearly to render the entire theatrical apparatus as transparent as possible. And the point of this, besides adding extra layers of "live" excitement to the audience experience, is that it undercuts the main traJectory of the drama in the way it lays bare the workings of its own magic. To express this simply, the flute here seems more powerful for being a real, playable one. But the matter runs deeper. While Schikaneder's scenario centres on Tamino and Pamina's spiritual Journey from an enchanted realm to an enlightened one, the contrast is rarely wholly satisfying. Sarastro's power may reflect the love his subJects feel for him, but it is an absolute and unquestioned power nonetheless, and upheld in a web of magic no less mysterious and unaccountable than that of the Queen of the Night. This quasi-dictatorial status enJoyed by Sarastro is exposed via McBurney's decision to cast the character as a televangelist, operating at the centre of a world of brightly lit, eerily calm, air-brushed perfection. Tamino is thus desirable primarily for the way he appears, rather than as an actual hero searching for truth and wisdom - which, given that he falls in love with a snapshot, transfers his loyalties at the flick of a switch and seems inexplicably to lose track of his uniquely conspicuous guide (Papageno), explains rather a lot. Those who lie outside Sarastro's reach appear, by contrast, prematurely aged, or decrepit. The Queen of the Night is pushed about in a wheelchair by shadowy minions in dishevelled army fatigues, while the three boys are emaciated, wizened little sages. Monostatos, disgraced, quickly becomes disgusting, sprouting hair in all directions, his flesh spilling out from every seam.

The question of whether Sarastro's illusion is false or not is left open, but there is great ingenuity in the way the grand drama of good and evil is subtly pushed aside for something a little more palpable, and palatable. Indeed, this Magic Flute really seems to centre on the figure of the bird-catcher Papageno, here distinctly middle-aged, but also the one character who really seems to have an actual skill, or craft, and also a functioning human heart.

This is satisfying on a number of levels, not the least of which is that Roland Wood, who sings the role, provides the one really outstanding vocal performance of the evening. Particularly striking is the lack of artifice in Wood's singing, reflecting the general tenor of the show without sacrificing power or proJection (he is in fact better known as a Verdian baritone), and facilitating the move to speaking voice with remarkable naturalness and command of comic timing. ENO's rising star tenor Ben Johnson, by contrast, seems rather detached, while both Devon Guthrie's Pamina and Cornelia Götz's Queen lack fullness of tone. Mary Bevan, in her delightful but all too brief appearance as Papagena, offers a glimpse of how enchanting this otherwise very enlightening production could one day become.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The eyes have it

Salvatore Sciarrino
Linbury Studio

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 15 November 2013

The Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino is one of those rare figures who command universal respect, at least among the relatively small community of those who listen to what one finds oneself increasingly forced to call, through gritted teeth, "contemporary classical" music. Unusually, Sciarrino taught himself to compose, a badge of artistic independence he wears proudly; but in reality a stylistic line of descent can be heard coming through Luigi Nono and his pupil Helmut Lachenmann. Like theirs, his music delights in half-lit sonorities and operates at the margins of positive expression, resulting in a musical experience that sharpens the senses. A quiet but irrepressible delight accompanies the feeling of growing power as a listener.

Sciarrino's music is widely performed both in Europe and further afield, but for some reason none of his fifteen operas has made it to Britain until this year, when the ever enterprising Music Theatre Wales decided to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary by mounting a production of Luci mie traditrici, first staged at the 1998 Schwetzingen Festival and performed widely ever since. For its British premiere the libretto has been sensitively translated into English by Kit Hesketh-Harvey with the title given as The Killing Flower in reference to the rose on which the female protagonist pricks herself in the first scene - though it is her husband whom the wound causes to faint.

Literally, the title translates as "my betraying eyes". The change in the English version was Sciarrino's choice because he wanted to retain something of the erotic charge of the original. Nonetheless, it loses the crucial idea that it is the eyes, and the act of seeing, which are responsible for the betrayal. The opera is based on a seventeenth-century play, Il tradimento per l'honore, about a young nobleman who murders his wife and her lover. The setting was chosen by Sciarrino because he had long wanted to write an opera about the similar story of Carlo Gesualdo, but had been put off by the interest in Gesualdo taken by other composers, notably Alfred Schnittke.

The instrumental sections of Sciarrino's score take the form of fragmentary variations on a sixteenth-century song setting by Claude Le Jeune of the words "What happened to the lovely eyes which once brightened my soul with their rays?" But the opera itself unfolds another account of whose eyes are doing the betraying. Through the visual testimony of his servant, it is the Duke's recognition of the flaw in his image of his marriage that does the betraying, and which honour commands must be recompensed. The idea may seem an odd one, but the notion that the Duke's love for his young wife is, in his eyes, a kind of flower whose beauty is destroyed by the discovery of an imperfection matches perfectly the fleeting aesthetic of Sciarrino's style, whose exquisite beauty also seems to vanish if examined too closely. To be themselves, both love and music must remain tantalizingly Just out of focus.

Like many composers, Sciarrino continues to write operas in the belief that he can do something new with the form. Unlike many, however, he succeeds, perhaps largely because he is unafraid to look to the past. The vocal style employed exclusively in Luci is one of murmurs and sighs, and the lines take their quantities and variations in pitch and intensity directly from the words. In this respect, the opera is much closer in spirit to the early experiments in opera in late sixteenth-century Florence. The dramatic and musical momentum generated by Sciarrino, however, is quite unique because of the almost tantric manner in which the music builds up its charge. By the final act, in which the Duke leads his wife to their bed, on which is already lying her murdered lover, the music bristles with an electricity so urgent that one quite shares the Duke's picture of things. The experience is unsettling, to say the least.

The production is a collaboration between Music Theatre Wales's two founding co-artistic directors, the conductor Michael Rafferty and the director Michael McCarthy. Musically, Sciarrino's delicate sonorities survive well in the stuffy atmosphere of the Linbury Studio, and the instrumental sections were particularly well handled. It is hard to fault the singers - Amanda Forbes (Duchess), George Humphreys (Duke), William Towers (Guest) and Michael Bennett (Servant) - all of whom fully embraced the sensuous qualities of the vocal lines without forcing them. One odd feature of the production, however, stylishly and sparsely designed by Simon Banham and beautifully lit by Ace McCarron, is that the singers often appear to be over-acting. The vocal line is so rich and powerful in capturing the minutely variegated emotional spectrum of the drama that only the slightest trace of anger, fear and adoration in facial expression and bodily gesture is called for. But this is a minor quibble over a production which commands praise on every other level and which I hope will lead to a widening interest among British opera companies in Salvatore Sciarrino's work.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Children of violence

Giuseppe Verdi
Royal Opera House, until November 11

Benjamin Britten
Touring until December 6

Review from The Times Literary Supplement, 1 November 2013

Je n'accorde à personne le droit de diriger mes voeux!", exclaims Henri, the headstrong young hero of Verdi's Les Vêpres siciliennes. Without its context, his outburst reads like a universal exclamation, an article of faith for anyone who believes in the idea of moral freedom: others may decide my destiny and hold power over my movements and even actions, but no one can tell me how to feel about it. Coming from Henri, though, the exclamation is a particularly urgent one, and drenched in dramatic irony. It is urgent because Henri, a young Sicilian rebel, is standing before the tyrannical French governor of medieval Sicily, Guy de Montfort, who has Just released him from prison for unknown reasons and, while maintaining his freedom of movement, is expressly forbidding him from pursuing his passion for Hélène, a prominent Sicilian noblewoman and a sworn enemy of de Montfort. At the same time, the article of faith is simply mistaken.

Unbeknownst to him, de Montfort is his father, who raped his mother shortly after the French conquest of Sicily in a manner selfconsciously redolent of the abduction of the Sabine women by the early Romans. Born of violent conquest, and of the brutal elision of political and private acts of possession, Henri cannot help discovering filial affection for a man he had formerly sworn to hate.

Les Vêpres siciliennes was Verdi's first attempt to storm the fortress of French Grand Opera. When the invitation from the Opéra came, he made sure his contract stipulated he would work with the capital's most highly regarded librettist, Eugène Scribe. The partnership took some time to bear fruit; "J'ai besoin d'un suJet grandiose, passionné, original", Verdi wrote to the librettist before they eventually settled on Scribe's rewriting an earlier treatment about the Duc d'Albe (written for Fromental Halévy) which, though not exactly original, was not lacking in grand passions. Verdi also insisted on changing the setting to the 1282 uprising of Sicily against French occupying forces.

The problems Verdi experienced with the libretto and its author have often been held to account for the work's perceived failings. At its premiere, however, it was a notable success, one of the highlights of the Parisian world exhibition in 1855. If it lacks the levels of musical inspiration typical of Verdi at his very best, Vêpres is nonetheless an impressive and often profoundly beautiful score. Dramatically, too, it is cleverly structured, with the choruses and the duets acting as pivot points and conduits for the tangled analogies and contradictions between public and private conceptions of love and loyalty. The first scene of Act Three, during which Henri learns of his kinship with de Montfort, is a masterpiece of musico-dramatic fluency, in which Henri's eventual acceptance of the truth is shadowed by the formal progression towards a genuine duet.

All this goes some way to explain both why the Royal Opera's new production of the work is the first in the company's history, and why the company is to be congratulated on making it the centrepiece of their celebrations of Verdi's bicentenary. It is a brave undertaking, for the opera will not reward half-hearted attempts to mount it, and to their credit, the company have thrown everything at the show, with Antonio Pappano's preparation of his orchestra and cast demonstrating his customary mix of diligence, passion and panache. The casting, too, is stellar. Michael Volle is peerless as de Montfort, stinting neither on showing his character's odious and capricious nature nor on revealing his loneliness, selfpity and need to be loved. His voice has the requisite power as well as agility, and in the role's more lyrical moments - such as in Act Three - it has a disturbing beauty which, when combined with Volle's acting skills, proved irresistible in its demand for his audience's - and son's - unlikely sympathy. Bryan Hymel's portrayal of Henri is also emotionally and technically faultless. One can think of bigger names for the part, but Hymel has proved himself repeatedly on the Covent Garden stage in comparable roles such as Berlioz's Enée and Meyerbeer's Robert, and the decision to cast him here was absolutely right. Despite suffering from the early stages of a throat infection, Lianna Haroutounian, who is replacing Marina Poplavskaya for a portion of the run, is a moving and commanding Hélène, while Erwin Schrott's vocal command of the part of the fanatical rebel Jean Procida is so assured and effortlessly powerful that one can overlook his exaggerated acting.

In this respect, however, he seems to have been encouraged by his director, Stefan Herheim. Herheim has placed the idea of theatricality at the centre of his presentation of the work by incorporating the side elevation of an opera house auditorium into the sets for the chorus scenes, and some of the more intimate moments too, so that the French soldiers and others are watching, with various degrees of amusement, the stage action unfold. In doing so, he has added a further layer of irony to the work's central examination of the irreconcilability of public and private passions. For, if there is a sphere where people, if only temporarily, readily and actively submit to being told by others how to feel, it is the theatre.

Herheim has set the action in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, the (far from uncommon) idea being that the society which produced the work is examining itself through it. In addition to Gesine Völlm's lavish but largely traditional costume designs, the visual manifestion of this self-reflexive turn takes the spectacular form of gilded interior sections of an opera house which, in spite of their appearance of massive solidity, silently float off into the wings without warning, or swing round so the proceedings are viewed the other way around. Nor are the rest of Philipp Fürhofer's sets really what they seem to be, as mirrored wall sections reverse to reveal Sicilian landscapes.

That said, the success of Herheim's staging owes less to its Konzept than to the way each interlocking visual tableau seems so fluently to move with and from the music. The result is that each scene is marked by an extraordinary grace and conviction, and carried by a momentum which allows the audience to set to one side any puzzling directorial details without becoming irritated by their residual ambiguities. Perhaps a little too much is made of the theatre idea in the final act, which ends with floodlights shining into the auditorium from the stage so brightly that the stage becomes invisible by the end. But Verdi's final act is a troublesome creation - a series of increasingly awkward postponements of what is dramatically inevitable - and Herheim succeeds admirably in rebuilding the lost tension from the preceding act.

One of the best directorial interventions is the casting of Procida as director of the ballet corps, who is roughly beaten during a rehearsal (the overture) by the boorish French troops before the dancers are taken aside, the inference is, to be raped. As a reminder, the dancers - including the ghost of Henri's mother - frequently revisit the stage as the action unfolds. Their elegant and entirely classical dancing style becomes awkward and disJointed when "directed" by the French, so their continued presence on the stage acquires a kind of subversive and eventually nightmarish aspect. The dancing, by members of the Royal Danish ballet together with students from our own Royal Ballet school, is nicely done but the main ballet set-piece has been cut, following the decision by the Royal Ballet to withdraw from co-producing the opera.

One of the most interesting features of the production is the way it casts light on the psychology of rape and its changing portrayal, from the French soldiers' modelling of themselves on the ancient Romans to the presentation of Henri as a child of violence now himself imprisoned by the violence of his own contradictory passions. This plurality of perspective is echoed in one of BenJamin Britten's most neglected operas, The Rape of Lucretia, which has now been staged at Glyndebourne - by the company's touring division - for the first time since the work's unpromising premiere there in 1946. The neglect in the latter case is arguably Justified by Ronald Duncan's libretto, which is relentlessly "poetic" in away that drowns all the characters in a thick soup of laboured similes ("the oatmeal slippers of sleep" is one of many prime examples).

The production's director, Fiona Shaw, is obviously unable to do much about this, but she has provided an elegant solution to the work's other main question, which is how to handle the rather prudish-seeming Christian framework and the way, in the form of the two "choruses" (the male and female narrators), this leaks into the stage action proper. Britten's taut, glittering and superbly elegant score aside, this narrative seepage has always struck me as one of the opera's most compelling features. In particular, the way the supposedly detached male chorus seems almost actively to persuade Tarquin to forget his conscience and make a conquest of his friend's wife has interesting dramatic implications. Shaw's solution is to cast the two choruses as a pair of 1940s missionaries at an archaeological dig. The two "choruses" can therefore be seen to be actively reconstructing the story as it unfolds on stage, leading to a situation where their own beliefs and desires have a role to play in the account of the ancient Roman characters' motivations and actions. In addition to being visually simple and efficient - and thus of a piece with Britten's score - the device allows Shaw to dramatize not only the pair's overtly Christian response to the legend, but also their darker side. When night falls, the two archaeologists get so carried away in their outraged imaginings they end up tearing off their clothes and hopping into bed together, awakening the next morning to their own guilt and to the beautiful, innocent duetting of Lucretia's two maids.

The opera is wonderfully conducted by Nicholas Collon and benefits from some stunning performances, notably from Allan Clayton and Kate Valentine as the two narrators, and from Claudia Huckle as Lucretia, with a wonderfully rich but clear contralto. Duncan Rock's portrayal of Tarquin, too, was quite superb, portraying him as a complex character both excited and rather appalled by his actions.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Their own narrators

from the Times Literary Supplement, 17 August 2012

George Benjamin
Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence

Robin de Raaf
Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam

George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's first collaboration was a short chamber opera based on the folk tale of the Pied Piper. Following its premiere in Paris in 2006 and a number of subsequent productions in Britain and elsewhere, Into the Little Hill quickly garnered a reputation as one of the most successful recent British operas, with an unlaboured but forceful political message and a notably ambiguous treatment of the idea of music - personified by the figure of the piper - as an agent both of compassion and illusion, powerfully human yet at the same time coldly indifferent. In the marriage between the painstaking craftsmanship of Benjamin's musical idiom and the taut, troubling simplicities of Crimp's text, it also suggested a creative partnership of significant promise.

It took some time before the pair saw eye to eye, Benjamin struggling to adapt to Crimp's insistence on inserting abrasively contemporary, secular terminology into what was supposed to be a time-neutral setting of the myth. The word "concrete" represented a particular sticking point for the famously fastidious composer, who complained he had no idea how one might go about setting such lifeless words. As it turned out, the apparent mismatch between Benjamin's elevated, shimmering musical world and these recurrent signifiers of an everyday marked by dull aesthetic indifference proved to be one of the opera's most fertile tensions. Crimp and Benjamin have much to thank each other for.

Perhaps provocatively, the pair's latest collaboration opens with a chain of references to modern building materials. A full-scale opera this time, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence festival together with a consortium of European opera houses, the work received its premiere at this year's Aix festival and will resurface in the coming season in London, Amsterdam, Florence and elsewhere. Like the previous work, the opera centres on an ambiguous and mysterious artist figure, although the wandering troubadour-like Stranger of the earlier opera is here transposed to an equally morally ambiguous illustrator and writer, commissioned by a medieval nobleman to make an allegorical manuscript - "a precious object, written on skin" - capable of reflecting and amplifying his worldly authority and heavenly ambition.

The story is adapted from a gruesome Provençal folk tale - a condensed version of which is related by Filostrato during the fourth day of Boccaccio's Decameron - in which a nobleman murders his wife's lover and serves her a supper prepared from the dead man's heart. She eats the dish, is informed of its principal ingredient, and jumps to her death from a high window. The nobleman's comeuppance stems from the two lovers eventually being buried side by side, with verses immortalizing their union.

In Crimp and Benjamin's version, the bloody fable is turned into a far-reaching philosophical parable. The wife's lover, in Boccaccio a nobleman from a neighbouring province, becomes the illustrator, employed by the husband so that his mastery of the arts of writing and drawing may amplify and extend his power. The husband - called "The Protector" - is aware of his environment only insofar as it consists of his property, including his young wife, and conforms to his sense of propriety, enforced with a violence in which he is known to take a particular delight. With the addition to his property of the precious vellum he intends to magnify this sense of propriety. "Do not fault the book", he insists with quiet menace to his visiting brother-in-law, "or you will not pass the black dog at my gate." His insistence contains the seeds of his eventual downfall, and the opera revolves around the Protector's inability to realize that what he seeks to control through writing and idealized representation is in fact governed by interests rooted not in his sense of propriety but in the laws of invention and its implicit thirst for sensual beauty. The precious book becomes the principal instrument of his young bride's awakening, as she sees her likeness take shape on the illustrator's pages and comes to know what it is to lust for another's body, and to love as a free woman. As the situation spirals beyond the Protector's control, destroying the previously unquestioned rule of his authority, his dominion crumbles.

Beyond the messy revenge tragedy, the underlying theme that emerges is the binding of being to its representation in text and narrative, an idea which perhaps owes more to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida than to Boccaccio's morality tale. Certainly the play of textual distance and presence, scrutinized by Derrida in his early study De la Grammatologie, and refracted through the oft-quoted remark to the effect that "il n'y a pas de horstexte" (translated somewhat over-zealously in the first English version of the book as "there is nothing beyond the text", but probably better construed along the more modest lines of "there is nothing without context"), is ubiquitous in the opera, almost to the point of discomfort, and the idea that the "technology of absence" - writing, drawing - is in fact an irrevocable part of our being, is dramatized with an easy clarity and keen drama that the French philosopher might well have envied.

The most conspicuous "distancing" device in the opera, familiar from Into the Little Hill but employed to significantly greater effect, is that the characters are also their own narrators, the roles moving seamlessly between indirect and direct speech as it suits them. The device is also mirrored at a structural level by the way the perspective of the contemporary audience is kept in focus throughout. "Strip out the wires . . . . Force chrome and aluminium back into the earth . . . . Cancel all flights from the international airport and people the sky with angels", commands the Prelude, in a passage whose emphatic violence is only really rediscovered at the end, asking us to peel back the present to examine a distant past characterized by fuller, emotionally richer modes of being. But the process of uncovering is illusory: even at its most visceral and absorbing, the story remains anchored in the conscious perspective of those trying to achieve the uncovering. The technology of representation is visible and audible at all times, principally in the figures of the three "angels" - indifferent visitors simply interested in running a kind of archaeological experiment: the third angel takes the role of the artist for this purpose - and in their tight and unflinching grip on dramatic time.

This "distancing" is particularly apparent in Benjamin's score, which eschews any overt archaisms (beyond the sparing use of a few "exotic" instruments, including glass harmonica and viola da gamba) and never seeks to overcome its compact, tightly ordered modernity in order to attain a fuller or more natural lyricism. Instead it seeks to drive and colour the dramatic action with a kind of relentless dynamism reminiscent of Richard Strauss's Elektra, but without sacrificing its wondrously limpid textures and idiomatic elegance. The modal transpositions between direct and narrated speech in the vocal roles are handled straightforwardly enough, usually turning to shorter, breathier notes for the narrated phrases. But the divisions are not clear-cut and the dry rhythms of phrases such as "— said the woman", work their way into the orchestra before pushing back to the voice with greater intensity.

A good example is the wife Agnès's first moment of aesthetic and sexual awakening on noticing the young stranger in their household and wondering at his purpose. The initially tentative arc traced by her voice gains an increasingly urgent sensuality, as she notices, as if for the first time, the grit beneath her feet, the meaning of her sleeplessness - and the latent potential of the artist's power of invention for her own sense of self. Elsewhere, the entwining of Benjamin's generously laid-out vocal lines map out the changing dynamics of the curious ménage-à-trois, while the orchestra contrives to trace the parallel arcs in which the growing menace shadows the burgeoning beauty. Purely as a musical achievement, the score is probably more impressive than anything Benjamin has composed in the past decade; as an operatic one, in which the energy and wonder of the music drive and inflect the emotional and dramatic landscape, it is an extraordinary work, confirming Benjamin's place among the very front rank of contemporary opera composers.

Katie Mitchell's production, designed by Vicki Mortimer and lit by Jon Clark, also succeeds in doing elegant justice to the work's curious mixture of rampant passion and energy and sharp, clinical sense of control. Mortimer's visually arresting two-storey set is divided between past and present, the angels passing freely between the house of the Protector and the rooms occupied by silent researchers who move, when the focus is away from them, in slow motion. The individual performances are also magnificently in control of the work's uniquely uncanny dramatic atmosphere and strikingly fluid yet taut vocal lines. Both Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan give the performances of their lives as the Protector and his wife while the three angels - Bejun Mehta (who plays the artist), Rebecca Jo Loeb and Allan Clayton - are almost as impressive, reflecting perhaps Benjamin's careful preparation of the roles with each particular singer in mind (with the exception of Loeb, who replaces Victoria Simmonds). The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who played superbly, were conducted by the composer. Though the opera is extraordinary in the degree of its self-consciousness with respect to the limits and freedoms of its medium, the dramatic and musical tension did not flag for a second.

At fifty-two, Benjamin has made a successful career out of doing nothing in a hurry. Even his early masterpiece, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, which blazed a high-profile trail for the twenty-year-old undergraduate composer at its performance during the 1980 Proms season, conveyed a kind of artistry dependent on the patience and maturity necessary to allow a new musical style to fit easily in its own skin. His turn to opera has also been a patient one, and yet Written on Skin, composed pretty much in two years, marks a significant departure for the composer. The score is longer than all his works of the past decade put together; and it has an energetic, unleashed character which suggests that Benjamin, though in many ways a natural miniaturist, has perhaps found his métier in full-scale operatic composition, with the form's demands not simply for strict working deadlines but also for a slight relinquishing of compositional control. As Written on Skin confirms, the marriage of talents and interests with Crimp is a powerful one, perhaps uniquely so. At the same time, one might hope for a more direct libretto in future, in the interests of discovering just how far the composer's creative unbuttoning can go.

In its use of tightly ordered musical tableaux to express a powerful dramatic continuum, Written on Skin bears comparison with another new opera by the Dutch composer and pianist Robin de Raaf which received its premiere in Amsterdam earlier in the summer. Though ostensibly very different in terms of character and subject matter, Waiting for Miss Monroe, composed to an English-language libretto by Janine Brogt, shares an emphasis with Benjamin and Crimp's work on the relation between narrative time and the more immediate time-awareness peculiar to opera. The principal scenes all revolve around the idea of waiting for the actress while she gathers herself together from the fragments left over from former relationships, photographs and past successes and failures. In this respect, although its line on the actress is similar to several other recent attempts to portray Monroe, it also shares with the Benjamin opera its use of devices unique to opera in which to frame the tension between its heroine's sense of self and the construction of this self via external forces and factors beyond her control. Like Agnès, Marilyn is both made and unmade by the brilliance of her reflection, and both operas offer a powerful exploration of the latent tragedy of the self's passing into images beyond its control, and of a subjectivity which depends and thrives on the very thing that destroys it.

Waiting for Miss Monroe is De Raaf's second opera, and suggests a considerable talent for the idiom even if it falls short of real mastery. The music, while never uninteresting and stylistically coherent and varied, often lacks energy, and this filters through into the drama, where the action is also characterized by waiting for something to happen. Nonetheless, it is memorable in many parts, particularly for the final scene in which Monroe, clutching pills and bourbon bottle, tries to warn her younger self (sung by Hendrickje Van Kerckhove) before becoming lost in wonder at her own earlier freshness, in an affecting and troubling duet. In Lotte de Beer's fluid and stylish staging, which cleverly uses film-studio settings to make one ever conscious of the ephemeral nature of the visual environment, the American soprano Laura Aikin gives a tremendously animated, virtuosic performance. Together with Dale Duesing's amiable Fox, and the counter-tenor David DQ Lee's camp but affecting portrayal of Whitey, Monroe's make-up artist, Aikin carried much of the energy, which otherwise threatened to seep out from the Netherland Chamber Orchestra's slightly lacklustre performance in the pit under Steven Sloane.