Home – to a libretto by the composer & Jasmin Vardimon
Sevastopol – to a libretto by the composer, based on Leo Tolstoy’s writings
Victoria Couper & Melanie Pappenheim (singers)
Aoi Nakamura & Esteban Fourmi (dancers)
Jasmin Vardimon – Director
Guy Bar-Amotz – Designs
Chahine Yavroyan – Lighting design
Emma Bailey – Costume designs
Jesse Collett – Video animation
Michael Bracegirdle, Richard Burkhard, Adrian Clarke, Christopher Lemmings & Victoria Simmonds (singers)
Band conducted by Gerry Cornelius
John Lloyd Davies – Director
Emma Bailey – Designs
Chahine Yavroyan – Lighting design
Mandy Demetriou – Movement director
Linbury Studio Theatre at Royal Opera House, London
Saturday, April 21, 2012
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|Two short (each just over half-an-hour) offerings for this year’s “new perspectives on contemporary opera”, both of them well-made pieces, if neither of them in any way experimental or particularly mould-breaking. The brevity suited the single, simple message of Home better than it did the naturalistic narrative of Sevastopol.
Of the two composers, Graham Fitkin is the more establishment figure, and his music for Home is straight from his urgent, propulsive, minimalist stable. If there are any up-market estate agents wanting to support the arts, they are unlikely to sponsor Home, a deftly conceived piece on the supposed certainty and real fragility of bricks and mortar, our shelter from the marauding world outside. The opening video projection neatly set the tone – rain lashing down outside, snug and secure inside. But not for long, as the singers and the musicians become more and more intrusive. It’s a piece that would fit perfectly well into a contemporary dance programme, since dance is the main focus, with the two dancers’ expressions of domestic bliss eroding fast. The two singers, like spirits of blank insecurity, merge in and out of the paper walls of designer Guy Bar-Amotz’s cartoon-like room, although it was anyone’s guess what they were singing about (there were no subtitles, alas).
Fitkin’s music builds to an impressive barrage of menace (with some wild writing for trumpet and saxophones), the video animation delivered superbly malignant shadows emanating from the fireplace, with the room becoming smothered in brambles and creepers like the castle in The Sleeping Beauty, and the detailed choreography caught every nuance of ever-more defensive gestures of possession. The dancers were like Adam and Eve, lost souls ejected from Eden. Home is effective and ferocious, but even if the libretto had been audible, it would still have remained a music-theatre piece, with the emphasis on dance. Not a piece, perhaps, for people trying to meet their mortgage payments.
In Sevastopol, Neil Hannon, the Northern Irish lead in his group The Divine Comedy and blessed with a subversive, off-beam sense of humour, proves how conservative pop musicians can be. Hannon has created his own libretto from Tolstoy’s Sketches of Sevastopol, about the siege of the Crimean city in 1854-5. The eight short scenes, linked with a sonorous continuity voice-over, are based on Tolstoy’s vivid descriptions of the misery and deprivation of the siege. Hannon’s music is fluent, attractive and direct. There is an element of him aping grand Russian opera, with the inclusion of a Mussorgsky-style whining simpleton and a conventional aria, in which Tolstoy laments the fate of the common man, that wouldn’t be out of place in a musical. The man singing the role of Tolstoy (not credited, which was odd since he is the main, stand-alone part) had the right degree of gravitas and compassion, and the four other singers played soldiers and the wounded and starving citizens with vivid realism. Emma Bailey’s set evokes the devastation recorded by snaps taken during the Crimean War (the first ‘modern’ war to be documented by photography and newspapers). A mini history-opera seems an oddly limiting choice for a first-go at opera, and certainly doesn’t offer anything new on the genre, however well played and sung. But try for yourself.