Thursday 24 March 2011

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Kommilitonen! Royal Academy Opera, 23 March 2011

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre

The Oxford Revolution

Voice of Pokayne – Jonathan McGovern
James Meredith – Marcus Farnsworth

Die Weisse Rose

Sophie Scholl – Aoife Miskelly
Willi Graf – Frederick Long
Hans Scholl – Johnny Herford
Christoph Probst/The Evangelist – Stephen Aviss
Alexander Schmorell/The Grand Inquisitor – John-Owen Miley-Read
First Clerk, Prison Guard – Irina Gheorghiu
Second Clerk, Gestapo Officer 1, Janitor – Jonathan McGovern
Gestapo Officer 2 – Maximilian Fuhrig

Soar to Heaven

Li Jingji (Mother) – Irina Gheorghiu
Wu Taianshi (Father) – Jonathan McGovern
Wu (Son) – Katie Bray
Li (Daughter) – Belinda Williams
Two Younger Children – Hannah Bradbury, Annie Rago
Zhou (Red Guard) – Ruth Jenkins
Red Army Officer 1 – Belinda Williams
Doctor, Red Army Officer 2 – Laura Kelly
Red Army Officer 3 – Irina Gheorghiu
Puppeteers – Helen Bailey, Nicholas Crawley, Kerri-Lynne Dietz, Thomas Elwin, Fiona Mackay, Sarah Shorter

David Pountney (director)
Robert Innes Hopkins (designs)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Carolyn Choa (choreography)
Mark Down (director of puppetry)
Nick Barnes (puppetry designer)

Royal Academy Opera
Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

Never say never again: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies had declared that Mr Emmet Takes a Walk (first performance, 2000) would be his last music-theatre piece. However, upon appointment to a position at the Royal Academy of Music, Davies first declined and then, five minutes later, accepted: ‘OK, I’ll do it – but it must be about students and I want to do it with David Pountney … and we should try and do it somewhere else, as well as the Academy, and make it a joint commission.’ And so, it has come to pass: Pountney has acted as librettist and director; the Juilliard School has acted as co-commissioner; the new piece is indeed about students, as indeed was Royal Academy Opera’s recent production of Così fan tutte.

Kommilitonen! presents three stories of student activism, an idea suggested by Pountney to Davies on account of its alleged unfashionability. (It depends where one looks really.) In the meantime, however, the idea has become more topical than the creators might have expected. The three stories are those of the Mississippi Civil Rights pioneer, James Meredith (The Oxford Revolution) Munich students’ heroic wartime resistance (Die weisse Rose), and Chinese students turning upon their parents during the Cultural Revolution (Song to Heaven). Short scenes alternate between the three stories, not always ‘in turn’ – we do not visit China until the fifth scene – but nevertheless so as to provide a panorama of student political experience. The difficulty seems to be how to bring the stories together, and I was not entirely convinced by the synthesis attempted at the end, partly because the ‘message’ is unconvincingly optimistic – we win because we survive – and partly because the appearance of characters in each others’ worlds simply seems forced. Moreover, the superimposition, during the second of the two acts, of a choral voicing of the Passion narrative (in Latin) upon Die weisse Rose, itself somewhat confusingly sometimes in English and sometimes in German, seemed equally forced, though religious and theological concerns have for some time been of great importance to the composer. The introduction of a Grand Inquisitor was, I assume, a deliberate nod to Dallapiccolla’s magnificent one-act opera of political commitment, Il prigioniero, or perhaps it was to Schiller, but it seemed a little arbitrary in the face of what otherwise remained realistic, reportage even. When compared dramaturgically with a work such as Il prigioniero, let alone the daring marriage of agitprop and experimentalism in the operas of Luigi Nono, this did not always convince, enjoyable – perhaps curiously so – though it certainly was. Incidentally, I have no idea why Kommilitonen has been translated as ‘Young Blood’; it is neither a literal nor a contextual translation. ‘Fellow students’, or, if one wished to be more ‘political’, ‘(student) comrades’, would surely be preferable.

What of the music, though? Davies did a thoroughly professional job, as one would expect. The composer has long been associated with music for younger musicians, children included, and with other community projects. This, I can imagine, was a joy for the young musicians of Royal Academy Opera to work upon, nothing too ‘difficult’, grateful for the voices, an important choral part, and much to enjoy from the (chamber) orchestral standpoint too. Davies clearly did not want to present student performers with something unduly daunting, but at the same time, I could not help but wonder whether something a little less conservative in terms of musical language might have worked. Very little, if any, of the music would have been inconceivable to a composer working in the 1920s. Berg (a honky-tonk piano inevitably puts one in mind of Wozzeck, though there are of course precedents in Davies’s work too) and still more so Weill often come to mind in what was in general a frankly tonal score. Britten seemed a guiding presence too. Despite the division into twenty-eight scenes, the two acts are through-composed. There are, though, several memorable moments, not least the choral marching to glorify the Cultural Revolution, and a splendid trumpet solo (very well taken) during the confrontation of the Inquisitor with the Munich students. There is a good bit of parody, long, of course, a preoccupation of the composer; one could not help but smile at the incongruent jazz-band puppetry for the Maoist party scene (no.23). Nevertheless, I equally could not help but wish for the old bite of a work such as Eight Songs for a Mad King; it might have been an angry young man’s music, a line difficult to sustain forever, but its radicalism still takes one’s breath away.

Davies had collaborated with Pountney before; indeed, he was the librettist for Mr Emmet Takes a Walk. ‘I knew,’ Davies remarks, ‘that the stage direction would not be a travesty of text and music’. And the direction did seem to serve the work well – hardly surprising, I suppose, if director and librettist are one and the same person. The stories are generally told clearly and with wit; puppetry, in danger of becoming merely fashionable on the opera stage, does not fall into that trap here. Set designs and changes are skilfully conceived and executed. The intimacy of the Jack Lyons Theatre helps, but great credit is nevertheless due to all concerned.

Musically, this was very much a company performance rather than any sort of star vehicle, for which enabling credit is certainly due to composer and librettist. It seems in that context invidious to single out particular vocal performers, since all convinced, though I wish the unwelcome trend of having American characters sing in pseudo-American accent might be curtailed. No equivalent was attempted with the German and Chinese stories, so why do so when it comes to the United States? More importantly, however, one truly gained a sense of singers’ musical and dramatic interaction, having developed a work from scratch. There were no weak links whatsoever. Jane Glover directed the excellent Royal Academy Sinfonia with verve and formal clarity.