Sunday, 16 May 2010

Michel van der Aa: After Life, Barbican, 15 May 2010

Barbican Hall

(semi-staged performance)

Chief – Claron McFadden
Bryna – Helena Rasker
Ilana – Margriet van Reijsen
Sarah – Yvette Bonner
Mr Walter – Richard Suart
Aiden – Roderick Williams

Michel van der Aa (director, video)
Robby Duiveman (costumes)
ASKO|Schoenberg
Otto Tausk (conductor)

I was rather excited about this performance – as a prospect. No one could fault the Barbican Centre’s enterprise in bringing across from the Netherlands a new opera by a highly regarded composer, Michel van der Aa: just what an enterprising arts venue should be doing, in this case as part of its Present Voices season. (Henze’s Phaedra had been given its British premiere in January. April had witnessed Heiner Goebbels’s I Went to the House and did not Enter.) A promising team of performers, not least the crack ASKO|Schoenberg ensemble and soloists such as Claron McFadden and Roderick Williams, was slated – and did not disappoint. Why then was I disappointed?

Try as I might, I could find little to recommend in the work itself. In brief, the action is set in a ‘way-station between heaven and earth’. New entrants must choose from their single lives a memory that was ‘most meaningful or precious’ to them. The staff help them do this and put together brief films of those memories, rather as if they were on Blue Peter. One of them, Aiden, is eventually enabled to leave by finding his own memory; he must therefore leave behind Sarah, who may have fallen in love with him. At the end, the films are shown. However, interspersed with this principal action are testimony from ‘real people’: ‘video insert documentaries’, which range from the interesting – well, one of them – to the insufferably banal. Tessa, a South African who turned her back on apartheid represents the former; a short documentary concerning her life and experiences might well have been of interest in its own right. Flint, a little boy who lost his dog, stood at the other end of the scale. Inclusion of children is usually a cheap trick, to prey upon sentimentality; whether that were the intention here, I have no idea, but it was certainly the result, as nauseating audience cooing commenced. (I was put in mind of the dreadful ENO Messiah from last Advent.)

The libretto, adapted by the composer from a story by Hirokazu Kore-eda, was perhaps the worst aspect: not only unmusical but prosaic to a degree that almost defied competition. Here, chosen at random, is a brief excerpt:

Ilana
But those are just memories.
And ultimately, we end up
turning memories
into our own images.
Of course, they really happened,
so they feel very real, but …
Say I construct the future,
as though I’m making a film about it.
As I imagine all kinds of situations,
I think that what I create,
would feel a lot more real
than some memory.
And that’s a lot more meaningful than
looking back at the past.
Living with a single moment from my past,
would be too painful for me.

Chief
I think you’d better reconsider.

Ilana
It’s your whole set-up here
That needs rethinking.

Ilana, I think, spoke truer than she knew. A theatrical treatment of the state of Limbo, recently put under siege by the Pope but still dear to many believers’ hearts, might have been a more promising idea. The banality of responses to the opera’s great question on a dedicated website suggests that just about anything might have been. But religion, astonishingly, was entirely absent.

Of course, some memorable operas succeed in spite of their texts. Alas, I could find nothing to interest me in the music either. It seemed to rely upon a few repeated figures, vaguely minimalistic, post-Stravinskian at a stretch. After a certain degree of repetition, they changed slightly, and were joined from time to time by electronic elements. At certain ‘emotional’ moments there was more heightened ‘emotional’ music, in a generalised fashion. There was nothing offensive; I rather wish there had been. It was all just mildly boring. Perhaps such uneventful music was an attempt to characterise a a ‘way-station between heaven and earth’. Who knows?

The performances, however, seemed to me excellent. There was no faulting the commitment of the ensemble, nor Otto Tausk’s direction. Standing out amongst the singers, as one might have expected, were Claron McFadden’s Chief and Roderick Williams’s Aiden. Insofar as the latter could move us, he did. But all of the cast contributed impressively; it was just a pity that the cause were not a little less enervating.

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