Bird of Night

Dominique Le Gendre
Bird of Night – Opera in two acts [World premiere; libretto by Paul Bentley]

Appolline – Betsabée Haas
Nen-Nen – Andrea Baker
Justine – Jacqueline Miura
Ti-Jo – Paul Whelan
Désirée – Liora Grodnikaite
Diego – Richard Coxon
First Narrator / Satan – Mark Wilde
Second Narrator / Satan – Grant Doyle

Britten Sinfonia
Yuval Zorn

Irina Brown – Director
Rae Smith – Designs
Chris Davey – Lighting
Cathy Marston – Choreography

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 October, 2006
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A considerable success when premiered as a 20-minute workshop entry in Royal Opera’s “A NITRO at the Opera” project in November 2003, Dominique Le Gendre’s “Bird of Night” was subsequently commissioned, and now emerges, as an evening-length opera: has it made the transition successfully?

Yes and no. Certainly the narrative, as encapsulated by Paul Bentley’s libretto (on a par qualitatively, if very different from that for Poul Ruders’s “Kafka’s Trial”), holds the attention in its fusion of ‘down home’ folklore and imaginative flights (no pun intended!) of fancy. Too elaborate to be summarised as such, its essence concerns the ‘rite of passage’ undergone by Appolline from adolescence to maturity – and the encounters with supposed relatives whose blandishments are not to be taken at face-value. There are many poetic touches – notably through the way that the heroine urges her spirit to soar in imagery which, though rarely without an element of negation, is rarely less than elegantly realised.

Le Gendre’s music is more problematic, in that its sheer expressive consistency often precludes the possibility of opening-out to encompass the more aggressive and disruptive aspects of the drama. Stylistically, it looks to Gershwin for its easy though never cute melodiousness, and to Stravinsky for a rhythmic continuity that is applied with some subtlety. Here again, though, problems arise in the way that such uniformity of manner too rarely surprises once the ground-rules have been set – with eventhe evocations of witchcraft sounding no more authentic than those in works by Milhaud or Roussel and the elements of Trinidadian culture elsewhere almost too well absorbed to convey more than local colour. After an opera – “Gaddafi” – in which ‘attitude’ was largely at the expense of content, “Bird of Night” veers towards the opposite extreme in that its integration of indigenous and European cultural facets is almost too tasteful for the synthesis to provoke other than a passive reaction.

The production, however, is a convincing one. Irina Brown has imaginatively utilised the space of the Linbury stage to suggest all manner of arresting scenic imagery – aided by Rae Smith’s colourful and always-apposite designs and Cathy Marston’s stylish choreography, while Chris Davey’s lighting makesthe most of those lurid scenes where the heroine is drawn by the tempting of ‘black magic’ to nearly losing her identity. As small-scale music-theatre, this is a production that can hardly be faulted.

Vocally, matters are not quite this successful – though Betsabée Haas is superb as Appolline: her effortless consistency of tone ideal in suggesting the character’s naïve wonder at the world around her and the way in which she is given to ‘soar’ in mind as in body. With a number of roles (mainly in Baroque repertoire) already to her credit, Haas is clearly a soprano of the future. Jacqueline Miura is fine casting as Justine, admonitory and compassionate in equal measure, while Andrea Baker is both characterful and appealing as Nen-Nen. As Désirée, Liora Grodnikaite is as alluring vocally as she is visually – combining dominance and vulnerability in what is the opera’s most complex and intriguing role. Conversely, Richard Coxon’s tremulous and often-strained tone gives scant pleasure as the sinister but ineffectual Diego, while Paul Whelan’s humane Ti-Jo is undermined by his often awkward enunciation of the Creole lines. Yuval Zorn obtains a bracing and always committed response from the Britten Sinfonia, though he cannot prevent the culminatory scene seeming anti-climactic or the close from rather petering-out in the absence of a more decisive and hence satisfying conclusion.

As opera, “Bird of Night” is a brave attempt that fails musically through its lack of expressive range and theatrically through its uncertainty of how to place and sustain dramatic tension. 130 minutes passed, if not effortlessly, at least pleasurably – and the production certainly deserves to be seen.

  • Performances on 21, 24, 25, 27 & 28 October at 7 o’clock; and 22 October at 6 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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