Thursday, 26 April 2018

Philip Venables, 4.48 Psychosis, Royal Opera, 24 April 2018

Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

Images: ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

Gwen – Gweneth-Ann Rand
Jen – Lucy Hall
Suzy – Susanna Hurrell
Clare – Samantha Price
Emily – Rachael Lloyd
Lucy – Lucy Schaufer

Ted Huffman (director)
Hannah Clark (designs)
D.M. Wood (lighting)
Pierre Martin (video)
Sound Intermedia (sound design)
Sarah Fahie, Rc-Annie (movement)

Richard Baker (conductor)

Philip Venables’s 4.48 Psychosis, based on Sarah Kane’s final play, seems to have received a largely rapturous reception, at least from opera critics, on its first outing in 2016. I missed it then, so was very curious to catch it on its revival: one of the Royal Opera’s ventures outside Covent Garden – perhaps aptly, in a theatre, the Hammersmith Lyric, known for its spoken theatre rather than for opera. I seem to be somewhat out on a limb here – only somewhat, since my impressions are far from uniformly negative – but I am afraid I found myself, on the basis of a first encounter, more troubled by doubts than some. (I should certainly not put it stronger than that.) It is genuinely not my intent to find fault for the sake of it; I suspect, moreover, that much may more be a matter of my own aesthetic preconceptions and preoccupations. However, given so enthusiastic a reception, there is perhaps room also for a moderately dissenting voice; it is not as if anyone won over is going to have his or her mind changed by someone who failed to ‘get it’.

Effort has certainly been extended, by composer, production team, and performers alike, in transforming this enigmatic, fragmentary play into an opera. As is often, although far from always the case, that has involved an element of simplification. We have characters and a more concrete setting, the latter still at a relative level of abstraction and/or malleability. The same could be said of the former, barring the protagonist, Gwen, and her psychiatrist (one presumes), Lucy, and even they can come together in the mass of five voices so as to present something beyond, or perhaps before, mere individuality. The use of ensemble often works well, breaking down or not, as the case may be – not unlike what we see on stage. A central narrative is much clearer: if, in the play, we know where everything is heading, even without knowing that that was precisely where Kane’s life was heading, temporal sequence is perhaps clearer, or at least less fragmentary, which may or may not be the same thing.

There is genuine musico-theatrical imagination, arguably innovation, too. Use of titles to present unspoken or unsung thoughts and words is not unknown, often playing, as here, with mismatch between what we see and what we hear. Here, however, it often seems an especially apt response. If an oft-posed – too often, perhaps – question in opera, is ‘Why are they singing?’ then here one might ask, ‘Why are they not singing?’ Two percussionists in the ‘pit’ – actually above the stage, adding, alongside some of the multifarious musical styles employed, to something of a nightclub feel – correspond syllabically with each other, ‘their’ or rather the ‘characters’’ words ‘typed’ out below. Likewise the psychiatric test of counting down in sevens makes its near-deadly appearance on that wall of further action between instrumentalists and stage. There was certainly no gainsaying the excellence of the musical performances either. Gweneth-Ann Rand and Lucy Schaufer stood perhaps as first among equals, but this was a vocal ensemble to be reckoned with by any standards. Likewise the players of CHROMA under Richard Baker’s clearly expert direction proved a match for any new music ensemble. Without knowing the work at all, there seemed little doubt that we were hearing what we should, in duly incisive performances.

And yet, I had a nagging suspicion, sometimes more than that, that it was performative and production excellence that were pulling this together in the direction it wanted – or we wanted it – to go. Was there actually that much more to the mélange of sections of music, often perhaps on the verge of noise – a meaningful distinction or not? – here? After all, a confused barrage of sounds may perhaps lend itself a little too readily to depiction of or engagement in psychosis. What of the clichés of Bach quotation and a modernised – post-modernised? – early music ‘lament’? Perhaps, though, that is the point. I readily acknowledge that it might be. Is not treating operatic music simply ‘as music’ almost always to miss the point? As a scholar of Wagner and opera more generally, I can hardly deny that. Likewise to make comparisons to original source material; again, as a scholar and indeed devotee of… Perhaps, then, it was more of a matter of my not necessarily having ‘liked’ the often popular musical styles, whether taped (presumably) or live. Again, that may well be the, or at least a, point. It is hardly much of a criticism to say ‘I did not like that.’

Even, at a more fundamental level, my doubt as to how much of an opera this was, interest in the voice, whether ‘intrinsic’ or ‘dramatic’, not always immediately apparent, might well be answered with many historical and contemporary examples of that too being the point. I could not help but think of Stravinsky’s typically artful twin avowal and disavowal of participation in such debates: ‘The Rake’s Progress seemed to have been created for journalistic debates concerning: a) the historical validity of the approach; and, b) the question whether I am guilty of imitation and pastiche. If the Rake contains imitations, however – of Mozart, as has been said – I will gladly allow the charge (given the breadth of the Aristotelian word), if I may thereby release people from the argument and bring them to the music.’ Was I involved in the drama, wherever that lay? Yes. If so, does it matter what my ‘ideas’ of opera might be? Probably not. After all, there is, or at least was, a long operatic tradition, both non-Wagnerian and non-Stravinskian, in which ‘the work’ takes less than centre-stage, in which the performative, contingent element is stronger. Perhaps Venables’s opera, then, lies closer to Rossini and Donizetti than to those works with which I stand more at home, and therein lies my ‘problem’; perhaps that problem is mine, and mine alone.

My next London opera visit will be to hear George Benjamin’s new work, also from the Royal Opera. Who knows what that will hold? I suspect, however, based upon his first two operas, that it will prove more to my taste, perhaps to my understanding too.