Almeida Opera – The Sea and its Shore

Bass Clarinet and Percussion
Eh Joe
The Sea and its Shore [World Premiere]

Katalin Károlyi (mezzo-soprano)

Gareth Brady (bass clarinet)

Richard Benjafield & Julian Warburton (percussion)

Almeida Ensemble
Charles Edwards

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 July, 2004
Venue: Almeida Theatre, London

For the first new item of this year’s Almeida Opera season, John Woolrich assembled a fascinating text for The Sea and its Shore – an extended song-cycle inspired by the title of a short story by Elizabeth Bishop, concerning the likelihood of understanding less the more that one knows. Extracts by Emily Bronte, Raymond Roussel, Robert Walser, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Éluard, Robert Schumann and Gérard de Nerval were pressed into service in what promised to be a thoughtful meditation on the impossibility of meaningful communication – given the workings of emotional time and distance.

Sadly, the work itself was a dreary, uninspiring affair: less than the sum of its only intermittently absorbing parts. The semi-staging hardly helped – with Katalin Károlyi situated at a table, ostensibly reciting from a manuscript ostensibly that of the score itself (in which case, the frequent turning of several pages was presumably ‘stage managed’). It made for a static, inflexible ambience that the music did little to offset. With his practical and often imaginative ‘take’ on composers recent and distant, Woolrich can be a distinctive and engaging composer. Not here, however, as the work passed from one earthbound setting to another – not helped by the halting, syllabic writing given to Károlyi (a conspicuous waste of a superb singer) and the monochrome (in all senses) contribution of the ensemble. 35 minutes or so passed effortfully under these circumstances.

The evening was made worthwhile by the first half. At 16 minutes, Bass Clarinet and Percussion (1981) is among the shortest of Morton Feldman’s late works, and a virtual paradigm of the ‘less is more’ philosophy which makes the music of his final decade seminal to contemporary culture. As with all these pieces, it has no need of extra-musical mediation, so there was some trepidation when the work was preceded by five minutes of photographic projections from David Batchelor’s collection “Found Monochromes of London”: empty advertising spaces and fly-boards that continued over most of the music’s duration. Yet while Batchelor’s images are hardly indelible, they underscore something of the aural introspection that Feldman mines so memorably in his music. The performance by Gareth Brady, Richard Benjafield and Julian Warburton was a finely attuned one, though one intrusive ‘throat-clearer’ offered a reminder that Feldman makes demands on listening such as audiences are seldom equipped to meet.

This was followed by a screening of Samuel Beckett’s 1966 short “Eh Joe”: one of several pioneering interior monologues he made for BBC TV, in which the silent image of a man is emotionally ‘stripped bare’ by a voice in his head. Someone from his past? One real or imagined? Speculation is as endless as the tension is palpable over the 17 minutes it takes for the film to run its course. The medium of television was made for such endeavour – almost four decades on, it has achieved nothing finer.

  • Almeida Opera runs until 18 July
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