Written on Skin: an unoperatic opera

A few, vaguely ordered, thoughts on George Benjamin’s Written on Skin:

  • It is deftly scored, and has some beautiful passages: the stars coming out in the first act; the falling scene in the third.
  • Despite the excitement about Barbara Hannigan, and my general love of the counter-tenor voice, I thought the Christopher Purves as the Protector was the stand-out performer, distinguished by his range of expression, reaching into a menacing growl at points.
  • The dolls’-house staging was beautifully executed, and I particularly liked the scene where snow could be seen falling in the dark behind one window. It also brought the conceit of contrasting modern-day conservators with the mediæval setting of the story.
  • But the continued repetition of quotative phrases, ‘Said the Boy’, ‘Said the Woman’, along, less seriously, with the occasional but overt anachronisms, served to distance us from the action: it was emphasised that we were’t watching the story actually happening, but a group of mummers retelling it. As a narrative within a narrative, it reminded me rather of a Bach Passsion, or one of Britten’s Parables, rather than a full-blown opera.
  • Furthermore, neither the libretto nor the score gave much room for character development. I felt that Agnès’s rejection of her husband was explained intellectually and within the narrative, but little was done to explain why she subsequently sought intimacy with the Boy, and neither did we witness her emotional journey from chattel to free spirit to avenging fury.
  • The piece is very short for an opera, at just over an hour and a half, though not short enough to be a one-act miniature. It’s divided into three acts, and the curtain dropped for a few minutes between each act. Oddly, no one applauded after each act, so we were left with an uncomfortable silence which then dissolved into chatter until the stage had been reset and the orchestra played again.
  • All in all, there was something rather unoperatic about the piece, and the performance felt a little like a lavish—and well judged, effective and beautiful—staging of a work originally destined for the concert hall.

Tête à Tête Opera Festival 2011: first impressions

Many moons ago, in what feels like a completely different life, I did some work with a fantastic small opera company called Tête à Tête, and I was hugely impressed by the quality of performance they produced with really limited means, and by Bill Bankes-Jones’s directorial vision.

Since then I’ve kept a close eye on their work, so I was really keen to get to some performances in their 5th annual Opera Festival at Riverside Studios (which is also conveniently near Shepherd’s Bush, where I live).

I met my lovely friend V there at half past six, and we were treated to three entertaining, moving and thought provoking performances.

Catherine Kontz and Danny Standing’s Larvae was an effective piece of music theatre for baritone and radios performed in the lobby of the studios. A bit of humour, a bit of weirdness, and the odd dash of audience participation (both intentional and un-) made a fantastic introduction to the evening.

Tête à Tête have made quite a fetish for airing works in progress, sometimes in the very early stages of gestation. Robert Fokkens‘s Love Songs was presented as little more than a sketch, but already had a great sense of identity and purpose. Fairly predictably, the moment that stood out for me was the marriage scene, where Fokkens sets the priest’s homily as Anglican psalmody to an accompaniment on the melodica, which slowly gives way, with gentle insinuations on the drum kit, to a slow dance for the ‘happy couple’ before returning to the liturgical style for the pronouncement of marriage. Fokkens has a sure hand with the various genres he plays with, and the narrative uncertainties in this initial sketch should work themselves out as it’s developed further. (Bill did put out a plea for funding to develop this piece further, so anyone with £100k to spare should look no further!)

With four studio performances in one evening, it was tough choosing what else we wanted to see. Nick Owen and Gary Carpenter‘s Closing Schools for the Future had the most unlikely premise: a social policy research project cum opera based on the closure of a primary school in the Wirral. The texts were all genuine material: council minutes, excerpts from research papers, interviews with teachers, parents and stakeholders, and the performers were dressed unassumingly in suits and ties. What came out of it however was a funny and poignant study of an event which affected a community very closely. Whether poking affectionate fun at the conventions of policy documents (as citations flashed up on the screen in an overenthusiastic powerpoint slideshow), or examining the repercussions for children with physical or learning impairments (will they be left behind, or by some miracle or local planning encouraged to gain more independence), this performance managed to be both entertaining and moving. The final section, set to the sound of three iPhones running Brian Eno’s Bloom app was haunting, charming and slightly disconcerting.

The other involving aspect of the evening was the question and answer session that followed each of the seated performances. I think it’s really valuable to have a chance to discuss new music, and when one piece is very much a workshop, and other is so tied up in a community, it makes a lot of sense to follow them with a discussion. I feel I came away with a better sense of the pieces context, and I hope these discussions also help guide the developments of the pieces. There was even a threat of another opera on the closure of bus routes!

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / The Rite of Spring, English National Opera 10xi2009

It’s good to disagree, and Peer and I certainly differed on this double bill.

I came out of the Coliseum impressed by Daniel Kramer’s disturbing interpretation of Bartók’s one-act two-hander, and entertained by Fabulous Beast’s performance of Stravinsky’s epoch-defining ballet; Peer deemed the evening incoherent, and thought the performances unengaging, and indeed somewhat trite. Continue reading “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / The Rite of Spring, English National Opera 10xi2009”