Della Jones (mezzo-soprano)
Omar Ebrahim (baritone)
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 7 December, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Just like the proverbial omnibus, you wait ages for a silent film with live accompaniment and then they arrive in a clump! Just after the two performances of Abel Gance’s amazing 5-and-a-half-hour “Napoleon” given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Carl Davis’s magisterial score (courtesy Beethoven, principally every version of the Eroica theme, along with ones from Mozart, Haydn and others), the London Sinfonietta revived Benedict Mason’s 1988 ChaplinOperas which offers a gloss in sound for three of Charlie Chaplin’s miniature masterpieces made in 1917 for the Mutual Film Corporation.
All are early Chaplin classics. “Easy Street” sees the loveable tramp becoming a policeman, defeating his usual, gargantuan, rival Eric Campbell and converting a lawless street into a church-going congregation. “The Immigrant” follows Chaplin from the ship headed for Ellis Island and a new life in America, but realising harsh realities when he can’t pay for a meal he’s invited a girl too (Campbell is the massive waiter who is quite ready to beat non-payers to a pulp); thankfully an artist picks up Chaplin and the girl as models so their meal tickets in the new world are assured. Finally, “The Adventurer” is an extended police chase, with Chaplin as a convict eventually escaping in the sea and rescuing a beautiful girl and her mother from drowning, much to the chagrin of the girl’s beau (Campbell again). Taken back to the girl’s family’s well-to-do home, the chase continues as Campbell recognises the convict’s face in the paper, but with Chaplin always one step ahead.
Unlike Carl Davis, whose own scores for two of these silent gems formed part of his Chaplin festival with the London Philharmonic in November 2003, and which are available in handsomely restored prints on a BFI (British Film Institute) DVD, Benedict Mason has constructed scores that do not necessarily ape or reflect the action of the films. “Easy Street” and “The Adventurer” come closest – the former opening with a mock-religious chorale when Chaplin finds himself at a prayer meeting (and is so overcome that he hands back the collection box he had purloined) – but the score for “The Immigrant” seemed much more distant, to the detriment of both the film and the music.
The idea of these being operas comes from Mason’s self-constructed librettos which are more to do with 80s’ Britain, Thatcherism and contemporary social commentary than Chaplin’s films. Of course, Mason is right to claim similarities about poverty, law and enforcement etc, and there is no doubt that his musical settings are endlessly inventive, witty and brilliant. With two superb singers – or perhaps I should say vocalists – in Della Jones and Omar Ebrahim, we were given performances of intense conviction and fun. Whirring, clicking (and not just the click-track that conductor and Ensemble Modern veteran Franck Ollu listened to on headphones to ensure the incredible accuracy of playing), rumblings and grumblings all contributed to the soundscape, and the vocal lines – sometimes including the whole orchestra chanting away – reminded me of Ligeti’s “Aventures” series and Berio’s amplified vocal works – “Sinfonia” and “A Ronne” in particular.
Whether these very enjoyable scores actually benefit being seen with the films that inspired them I’m not too sure. Certainly having seen these films with Carl Davis’s scores, I know how funny they are, when ‘rolling about in the aisles’ would be a fair description of my reaction. However, with Mason’s score, the humour in the scores seemed to play against the humour of the films. I mused that, in the sense that Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” is not performed over a perusal of Le Prevost’s novel, but seen only in its own right, perhaps ChaplinOperas should take the stage alone; the inspiration not necessarily of prime importance to the final art-form.
This may be anathema to the composer, but maybe our wonder of the score would be even greater being able to concentrate on his invention rather than have it compete with Chaplin’s visual shenanigans, although the idea that composers see silent films as fertile compositional territory is (from his programme note) close to Mason’s heart, and the possibilities are by no means exhausted. Mason and Davis will presumably not be the only composers intrigued enough by the Mutual films. How odd, then, that Carl Davis’s score for “Napoleon” is on the point of being suppressed by that self-styled great-film-guru Francis Ford Coppola, who wants to silence (every pun intended, ironically of course) Davis’s score in favour of one composed by Coppola’s father. The legal might of a Hollywood mogul is omnipresent attempting to stop screenings of “Napoleon” with the Davis score.
Surely all efforts to restore such magnificent silent classics should be welcomed with open arms? They can tell you more about film and music alike – but then we should remember Berg’s request for a silent-film sequence in “Lulu” to see how these two art-forms could feed off each other.