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.

Kämmer Klang, 20100202

Off last night to Dalston for Kämmer Klang at Café Oto for what seems to be a typically diverse evening of performance.

Most intriguing were Kerry Yong’s two solo performances, which were billed as part of a series entitled Cover Me Casio in which he reworks existing compositions on a Casio keyboard with the aid of various effects pedals and electronics. First of these was a movement from Madrigale by Aldo Clementi, the very point of which is the gradually retarded repetition of a handful of short, distinct melodies. Most of the time it was impossible to correlate what Kerry was doing on the keyboard with the noises coming out of the speakers, and, as he was using a delay pedal and a laptop, it is hard to know which piece of equipment was responsible for which effects. The result, however, was charming and fascinating, and I think I’m going to have to do some research on these programming techniques now.

Kerry’s second solo performance was an reworking of Messiaen’s ‘Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets’ from his Quartet for the End of Time.The movement is Messiaen at his most muscular, whose highly characteristic melodies use his modes of limited transposition and added-value rhythms, and are gradually metamorphosed by rhythmic distortion and octave displacement. The entire movement is played at the unison or octave, which adds to the starkness of the piece. Kerry introduced his performance by declaring that this movement was a ‘good excuse for a colour trip’, and went on to prove this assertion, using an array of effects pedals to distort l and manipulate the sound of his synthesiser to create an impressive range of timbres and textures.

In both of these pieces I enjoyed the way Kerry used equipment which is usually the preserve of rock bands, but produced new and wonderful noises which seemed entirely appropriate for the pieces he was performing.

The other excitement of the evening was the improvisation set by Roger Turner on drum set and percussion, Alan Tomlinson on trombone and Steve Beresford on electronics. Alan had warmed up earlier in the evening with a performance of a piece by Xenakis, which had already showed off the range of his instrument, and he took this even further in this set, even turning a coughing fit (he was suffering with a chest cold) into a new source of noises and expressions. Roger’s percussion was equally adventurous, and he produced some fascinating sounds by scraping and rubbing various instruments, conventional and un-, against each other. Steve’s electronics provided a fitting counterpoint to the two acoustic performers, but after Kerry’s antics I spent more time observing them than him.

Kämmer Klang has a good format: it’s a little more formal and less gregarious than Non Classical, but the salon style of the evening, with several performers each evening, combining and recombining to play pieces by different composers, gives the programming a sense of vitality and diversity, and contrasts with the more gig-like format of Non Classical. Previous editions had continued past 23:30, so I was rather glad this evening ended at 22:30 and I could catch the Overground from Dalston Kingsland back out West.

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”