Almeida Opera – The Blind

Les Aveugles

Three Blind Women at Prayer – Hye-Youn Lee, Yun Jung Choi & Letitia Singleton
Mad Blind Woman – Diana Axentil
Young Blind Girl – Elisa Cenni
Oldest Blind Woman – Adeline Henry
Three Men Born Blind – Ugo Rabec, Jason S. Bridges & Ivan Geissler
Two Blind Men – Bartlomiej Misiuda & Joel Prieto
Oldest Blind Man – Igor Gnidii

Ensemble Cain [Cédric Jullion (flute), Aymi Mori (clarinet), Jérémie Maillard (violin), Christelle Séry (guitar), Sylvain Lemêtre (percussion)]
Guillaume Tournaire

Marc Paquien – Stage Director
Gérard Didier – Set Designer
Dominique Bruguière – Lighting Designer
Claire Risterucci – Costume Designer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 June, 2006
Venue: Almeida Theatre, Islington, London

One of the most valuable aspects of Almeida Opera is its bringing to the UK of recent stage-works by composers who are otherwise unlikely to gain much of a hearing on these shores. Such is the case with “Les Aveugles” (The Blind) by 24-year-old Swiss composer Xavier Dayer – a pupil of Ferneyhough and Murail, among others – whose reputation has been bolstered in the last two years with high-profile performances in Paris and Geneva. Premiered in Paris just last month, “Les Aveugles” evinces a sure theatrical intent, even if its distinctiveness as a stage-work is not matched by its dramatic immediacy.

The text is taken directly from an early play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the ‘plot’ concerning a group of blind people (six men and six woman) lost in the heart of a wood while out on a walk with the priest who administers the hospice in which they live. Gradually, they become aware of their predicament – which, though it causes a degree of consternation, is kept in check by the belief that the priest will come back to look for them. Only belatedly (some two-thirds of the way through the present work) does one of the men discover his body in their midst, the priest having died where they rested. Now their anxiety becomes acute, as animosities emerge and confrontations begin to form within the group – which yet remains indecisive, and thus helpless, at the work’s close some 70 minutes later.

With its basis in a context of insubstantiality, and galvanised by elements of a nascent psychology (hard to imagine that Schoenberg was unfamiliar with this play when he came to compose “Erwartung” barely twenty years later), “Les Aveugles” offers numerous possibilities of oblique dramatic treatmentwhich were not fully taken here. Essentially, Dayer deploys his dozen singers as a vocal consort – out of which individuals emerge sometimes as soloists, but more frequently in duos and ensembles that move the story-line (if something so inwardly motivated can be called such) along as if by inference: the whole group coming together at climactic points that provide formal and emotional markers over the course of the drama as a whole.

For its part, the five-piece instrumental group fills out the vocal textures with music that, if rarely autonomous, is equally more than accompanying figures; providing a discreet backdrop for, and sometimes an intensification of, the thoughts and fears of the singers.

All this in fine in principal, and there can be little doubt that Dayer’s aptitude for smoothly-contoured and idiomatic vocal lines is matched by his expertise in marrying them with each other and with the instrumental contribution. Yet 70 minutes passes but slowly when characterisation as such is all but absent and vocal writing is so uniform in expression – it is difficult to distinguish between those on stage to the extent that their sentiments are not just impersonal but depersonalised. Occasional distinguishing signs – the mute woman with the baby, who sings to herself at moments of acute crisis; the more animated reaction by the men with the arrival of the priest’s dog to search for his master – pass for little when the drama is so static in feeling as well as action.

The performance seemed thoroughly attuned to the particular requirements of Dayer’s stagecraft. It would be invidious to pick out specific singers – not least because their contribution is most decidedly a collective one, and the cool elusive harmony that emerges is the outcome of vocal lines intertwined in a delicate and unforced polyphony. The members of Ensemble Cain acquitted themselves expertly under the direction of Guillaume Tournaire – with Marc Paquien’s staging, effective in its restraint, enhanced by Gérard Didier’s scenically non-specific stage-set and by Claire Risterucci’s monochrome costumes. Dominique Bruguière’s lighting, moreover, provided a dramatic emphasis otherwise lacking in what was a sensitive but ultimately uninvolved rendering of Maeterlinck’s prophetic masterpiece.

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