Monday 13 August 2018

Tête-à-Tête Festival 2018: four new operas, 3 and 8 August 2018

The Crossing, RADA Studios

Alastair White, WEAR

The Writer –  Sarah Parkin
Reflection – Alana Everett
The Designer – Kelly Poukens
The Model – Metty Makharinsky
Reflection – Max Gershon

Ben Smith (piano)
Gemma A. Williams (director)
Derek Lawlor (designs)

Elfyn Jones, Vicky and Albert

Vicky – Anna Prowse
Elfyn Jones (piano, sound design, director)

Edward Lambert, The Clock and Dagger Affair (The Music Troupe)

Belisa – Fleur de Bray
Marcolfo – Kate Howden
Don Perlimplin – Andrew Greenan

Edward Lambert (piano)
Thomas Payne (conductor)
Jaered Glavin (director, designs)

Daniel Blanco Albert, Entanglement! An Entropic Tale (Infinite Opera)

Electron – Amy Van Walsum
Baron Entropy – Roxanne Korda
Singularity – Andrej Kuschcinsky
Positron – Charlotte Sleet
Gravity – Shiyu Zhang

Xizofen Song (piano)
Daniel Blance Albert (trumpet)
Aria Trigas (violin)
Tom Pickles (cello)
Arjun Jethwa (flute)
Dominic O’Sullivan (clarinet)
Nicholas Fidler (viola)

Aleksandar Dundjerovic (director)
Maria Jose Martinez (design)
Margarita Mikailova (conductor)

Images: Claire Shovelton

I feel a little ashamed to admit that this was the first year I had been able to attend any of London’s summer new opera festival, Tête-à-Tête. Still, in the balance of guilt as it stands in the world around us, there are probably worse sins. Better late than never – and what a delight it proved, in various ways, to attend two evenings: one in King’s Cross, the other not so far away in Bloomsbury.

Location was certainly important to the first, Alastair White’s WEAR. (He wrote both words and music.) ‘Space’ may sometimes be an irritating way of describing a venue, although more often than not it suggests a laudable desire to question institutional practices. Here, it was certainly the mot juste, ‘The Crossing’ – which, I confess, I initially had difficulty finding – being just that: a covered crossing between Central St Martins and the Granary Building. How King’s Cross has changed since my first visit as an innocent undergraduate. (Awaiting my late train back to Cambridge, I was approached by a lady of the night, inside the station, with the words ‘how about you and me get warm together tonight?’ I responded, rather to her surprise, I think, that it was such a balmy summer’s evening that there would be no need for that.) Now Granary Square and CSM are there, for one thing, as well as Kings Place a little closer to the station. Presenting an opera concerned with – and to a certain extent growing out of – the fashion world and its social as well as æsthetic entanglements adjacent to the school made a great deal of sense and genuinely added to the experience. A downside was the generous acoustic, making hearing the words quite a challenge; rarely, however, can we have everything.

Such indeed might have been a message of the opera too. It seems that White’s encounter with fellow founder of UU Studios, Gemma A. Williams helped steer a project he had initially been sketching in the direction of the fashion industry. Whatever the history, that is certainly what resulted: a fascinating one-act piece for piano, voices, and dancers, in which temporality – both thematically and, I think, within our experience of the work too – is challenged by not only the ephemerality but also the artistic aspirations of the world in which it is set. Time is shed in music just as it is in fashion, in clothing; yet both also persist – or can persist, taking on lives, after-lives of their own. Set on the edge of the apocalypse, actions, remembrance, and aspirations take on dramatic edge: not only in words, but post-Schoenbergian harmony, method, and vocal writing (much coloratura, perhaps a homage to Berg’s sometime clothes-horse Lulu?) too. Moreover, to embrace Derek Lawlor’s world of design – Design, perhaps with a capital ‘d’ – as well as to thematise it, prepared the way for all manner of dramatic possibilities: both fully realised and suggested. Accomplishment in both musical writing and performances was undeniable, even spellbinding. Had this been a song-cycle – or cantata – I should have been gripped, but staging, including the interpretative yet surely also inciting dance of Max Gershon, left one in no doubt that this was not only an opera, but an opera of rare imagination – and success. I am keen to hear more.

To RADA Studios, the following week, for three one-act pieces. The first two, whether by accident or design, complemented each other rather well. Elfyn Jones’s short (about twenty minutes?) piece, Vicky and Albert, for soloist, piano, and sound design proved a playful affair that yet did not lack emotional weight. Unabashedly tonal, yet with intrusions from the world of phone apps and other ‘found’ sounds ranging from a kettle boiling to a Tube train, we went on a not un-traditional journey – none of the dramatic edge of would-be conflicting timelines and impossibility, as experienced in WEAR – of a woman’s romantic dalliances and self-education, albeit with the twist that she learned from (or may have learned from) dependence on a virtual, app-based boyfriend. It was very topical, yes, and who knows whether it will last, but that was surely not the point. Or rather, in a sense, it was yet was cleverly thematised within too. Fashion and fashions take many forms, yet they will always have room for such excellence in operatic personality and presentation as shown here by Anna Prowse as the human, all too human Vicky.

More traditional in form and presentation, perhaps, or at least differently allusive to opera’s past, Edward Lambert’s The Cloak and Dagger Affair, based upon his own adaptation from Lorca’s Amor de Don Perlimplín con Belisa en su jardin, shared an inescapable element of contemporary communication: the mobile phone, in this case messages, leading to (possible) death and (certain) fruitless arousal and jealousy. A cloak and dagger affair indeed! Taking his leave from Lorca’s own employment of eighteenth-century music, Lambert intriguingly offered elements (at least) of bel canto vocal writing to vie with a more ‘modern’ idiom in his piano writing (and playing), showing us, not unlike Stravinsky, that the smallest changes can sometimes have one listen in a very different way indeed. Pulcinella perhaps inevitably came to mind as this re-imagination of a re-imagination of the commedia dell’arte worked not inconsiderable magic. Excellent performances, once again, from all concerned.

The element of quantum mechanics perhaps implicit in WEAR came to the forefront of the final work I heard, from Infinite Opera: Entanglement! An Entropic Tale, with words by Roxanne Korda (also singing) and Daniel Blanco Albert (also playing) offered an overt attempt to make an opera out of physics. The idea is intriguing yet, to my mind at least, the realisation needed considerable rethinking. There was something there to be salvaged, I think; however, attempted reconciliation with more ‘traditional’ operatic themes – what does ‘attraction’ mean when electrons, positrons, gravity, and so on are personified on stage? – came across with apparently unintentional bathos. Alone of the four operas I heard, this seemed far too long, fine singing and instrumental playing (very fine indeed!) notwithstanding. Repeated inability to burst a balloon at an end seemed all too ready a metaphor for what had gone before. The composer can certainly write music and create meaningful, even dramatically meaningful, musical process. That is no mean gift; in this case, however, at least for me, it would have benefited from further guidance.