As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams

Two Poems to Polly
As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams

Zoe Martlew (cello / voice)

Lady Sarashina – Kathryn Harries
Dream Speakers – Natasha Lohan, Anne Marie Gibbons & Richard Jackson

Mike Svoboda (alto trombone)
Gérard Buquet (contrabass trombone / sousaphone)
Yuval Zorn

Patrick Dickie – Director
Adam Wiltshire – Designer
Neil Austin – Lighting designer
Ian Dearden – Sound design

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 July, 2007
Venue: Almeida Opera, Islington, London

Of those composers established at the forefront of contemporary opera, Peter Eötvös is perhaps the most unexpected. Having built his reputation as an experimental composer during the 1970s, and then a formidable profile as a conductor of primarily – though by no means exclusively – twentieth-century music in the 1980s, he has achieved international recognition for a series of operas whose literary pedigree – Anton Chekhov in “Three Sisters”, Jean Genet in “Le Balcon” and Tony Kushner in “Angels in America” – has been matched by their scope and theatrical innovation. None of these works has yet made it to the UK, but a Glyndebourne commission is due next season and Almeida Opera offered at least a taster of Eötvös’s approach with its presentation of “As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams”.

Premiered at Donaueschingen in 1999, the piece was given here in the composer’s 2006 version with the ensemble replaced by multi-track tape, though with the important on-stage instrumental roles retained. Mari Mezei’s libretto is based on the diary of an eleventh-century noblewoman, Lady Sarashina, as translated by the Japanese scholar Ivan Morris and revolves around episodes from her life – half-remembered yet keenly felt – that are presented as a dream-sequence owing much to the hieratic intensity of Noh theatre. A sequence, then, that eschews linear continuity and cumulative logic in favour of events indirectly alluded to and experiences recollected in outward tranquillity. Only the Lady herself has an individuated role. The other three vocalists (though all the roles are in fact spoken) being ‘dream speakers’ who assume and exchange parts according to the moment at hand.

So, a static, essentially abstract drama for which Patrick Dickie’s direction was not ideally apposite. As if attempting to inject an expressive intensity, it felt too representational – too realistic even – to convey the intangibility of what was being inferred; not helped by Adam Wiltshire’s utilitarian designs, made less intrusive thanks to Neil Austin’s sensitive lighting. Kathryn Harries was thoughtful and sympathetic as Lady Sarashina, her composure and projection a model of how to realise such a part in Western terms, while the Dream Speakers evinced a measure of emotional distance that enabled their fragmentary roles to coalesce into a unified, ongoing presence (and overcome some occasionallyaffected text in the process). Yuval Zorn ensured a close correlation of sound and vision, with Mike Svoboda evoking memories of his trombone prowess in Stockhausen’s “Donnerstag aus Licht” and Gérard Buquet’s stage-traversal with sousaphone the most arresting image of the production.

“As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams” is not the best way into Eötvös’s dramatic work (interestingly, he is currently working on an operatic expansion with sung roles for Lyon), but it casts a rapt and haunting spell – replete with exquisitely nuanced instrumental writing that confirms a profound understanding of what sound is and what it can do. At barely 50 minutes, it also made a short evening, but cellist Zoe Martlew was on hand to perform “Two Poems to Polly” – disembodied miniatures that intrigue more through what is implied than through what is stated and which set the scene in well-nigh-ideal terms.

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