Shaman – Andrew WattsJanitor – Eric Greene
Younger Woman – Rhian Lois
Realtor – Clare Presland
Younger Man – William Morgan
Older Man – Phillip Rhodes
Mother – Susan Bickley
Lover – Sarah Champion
Babysitter – Claire Egan
Wife – Susan Young
Security Guard – Ronald Samm
Firefighter 1 – Philip Sheffield
Firefighter 2 – Rodney Earl Clarke
Sister – Niamh Kelly
Child – Edward Green
Deborah Warner (director)Michael Levine (set designs)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Tal Yarden (video)
Kim Brandstrup (choreography)
Orchestra of the English National OperaChorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Higgins)
Gerry Cornelius (conductor)
An opera dealing with – or at least claiming to deal with – the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary. This co-commission from ENO and the Barbican seems, alas, founded upon a bad idea. One can make an opera out of almost anything, of course, but that does not mean that some subject matter is no more or no less suitable than any other. The problem with the highly fashionable – at least in some quarters – tendency to base operas upon recent(-ish) news stories is that, all too easily, their ‘documentary’ as opposed to artistic quality becomes the issue at stake. In the case of the bombing of the Twin Towers, there is also the question of attempting to put oneself beyond criticism, or at least of appearing to do so, by dealing with such portentous subject matter. Or, in the opposite case, of creating a controversy, when someone objects to the choice of subject matter.
But the problem lies more with the specific choices of Nick Drake’s libretto: which, frankly, is dire. What are we told? That some people, with differing personalities and differing personal and financial circumstances, went to work one day, not knowing what was to happen, and never came back. Not much more than that, really. As a friend said to me after the event, there is a reason why disaster films tend not to deal with actual disasters, but will have at least someone surviving. What is an undeniable tragedy in ‘real life’ does not necessarily transfer so well to tragedy on stage. Moreover, the banality of the words – which will doubtless be justified as ‘realistic’ – irritates and, worse than that, bores. There is a limit to how many times anyone wants to hear ‘What the fuck?’ repeated on stage. Snatches of ‘real-life’, if fictional, conversation, are heard from the chorus as well as the ‘characters’, presumably a nod to the celebrated telephone messages left by victims. What on earth the ‘Shaman’ character is doing is anyone’s guess. I assume he in some sense signifies Fate; to start with, I wondered whether we might have a guest appearance from Stockhausen; alas not. Anyway, he spouts gibberish, which at least offers verbal and indeed musical variety, which to some extent is taken up by other members of the cast, especially the Janitor. Then he disappears. That sits very oddly with the work’s ‘realism’, and not productively so. Might it not have been more interesting to deal with the creators of what Stockhausen so memorably called Lucifer’s greatest work of art? Or, better still, to create a more finely balanced, fictional story?
Tansy Davies’s score is better than that. I suppose one would describe it as ‘eclectic’. There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, as Hans Werner Henze put it, writing about The Bassarids, ‘with Goethe under my pillow, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the possibility of being accused of eclecticism. Goethe’s definition ran: “An eclectic … is anyone who, from that which surrounds him, takes what corresponds to his nature.” If you wanted to do so, you could count Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, and Stravinsky as eclectics.’ What I missed, though, was any real sense of musical characterisation, or indeed of sympathy for voices. The score is atmospheric, and has a nice enough line in impending doom, ‘darkening’ in almost traditional ‘operatic’ style, but it tends more towards background, like a good film score, rather than participating in and creating the drama. That, at any rate, was my impression from a first hearing. Rightly or wrongly, music seemed subordinated not so much to ‘drama’, as to subject matter.
Deborah Warner’s production plays things pretty straight. What to do with the actual moments of impact? Stylisation is not a bad solution, so we see pieces of paper fall from the ceiling. Having a Mother sit at the front of the stage, looking ‘soulfully’ into the distance, at the close, risks bathos; but perhaps that is in the libretto. It does no particular harm. Insofar as I could discern, the ENO Orchestra and Chorus were very well prepared, incisively conducted by Gerry Cornelius. The cast is called upon more obviously to act than to display great vocal prowess, but its members all did what was asked of them. Andrew Watts’s counter-tenor Shaman stood out, but then, as mentioned, the role puzzling fizzled out. Susan Bickley’s talents seemed wasted, but as usual, impressed.
So then, I was happy to have gone, but cannot imagine rushing back. Apologists for new (alleged) conceptions of opera would ask where the problem was with that. Must everything, or indeed anything today, be a masterpiece? Well, clearly not everything will be, but I am not sure that I am willing to ditch the work concept or even the ‘masterpiece concept’ so emphatically, quite yet. Besides, this is clearly intended as a ‘work’, not as a ‘happening’, or some such alternative. ENO deserves credit for supporting and performing the work. Perhaps next time around, it will be luckier with respect to the outcome; this was, after all, the company that commissioned The Mask of Orpheus.