Constantinople [European premiere]

Christos Hatzis – Original concept and music
Maryem Hassan Tollar & Patricia O’Callaghan – Singers
The Gryphon Trio [Annalee Patipatanakoon (violin), Roman Borys (cello) & Jaimie Parker (piano)]
Marie-Josee Chartier – Director & choreographer
Jacques Collin & Lionel Arnould – Visual projection design and production
Bernard White – Set and lighting designs
Heather Macrimmon – Costume designs
Anthony Crea – Sound design & engineer

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 21 March, 2007
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Constantinople lies at a crossroads of the spirit, recalling the Roman emperor Constantine, Byzantium – a seat of Christian belief, and Istanbul – a centre for the Moslem faith in Europe, then a secular, modernist society.

Here peoples intermingle, living amidst the cultural heritage and concrete residue of this varied, shifting history. It moves people towards a deep-seated understanding of our common humanity, grounded as it is in their own culture, beliefs and understanding.

“Constantinople” is a Canadian celebration in eight continuing sectors. It is a product of Toronto – aiming at a spectacle of movement and sound, live and electronic. The stage starts coming to life when three oil-lamp designs at the bottom of three large metal circles glow, hanging across the stage at different heights. On the floor, to the audience’s stage left, is a metal structure resembling a huge ball of shredded paper, loosely crumpled. It has a seat – and can bear a large glass bowl, one third filled with water, and also, later on, Roman Borys. Rear stage centre is a piano. A large screen above takes images of all kinds – flare-like abstracts, curved arches of Islam and a panorama of faces – different ages, different genders and different cultures.

We start with a Credo in which the two white-robed female figures (Tollar and O’Callaghan) sing at first alternately and then jointly in their respective styles. All the while, they move gently, with soft dignity, O’Callaghan with formal, outstretched arms, downwards in dejection and upwards in hope and appeal. Tollar’s gestures – fluid, oriental and circular – hover above the earth. Towards the end of this section, they exchange their style of gesture.

A Kyrie follows. At first, we hear a sublime, simple one-phrase chant and spare, refined accompaniment from the trio of musicians. Forever and ever, this Victorian-like purity seems to suggest – yet suggesting minimalist, too. (Throughout the evening, Christos Hatzis’s simplicity was – in a delightful sense – knowing and sophisticated.) Cleverly, I thought, we suddenly became very up-to-date indeed – full-blooded sound from the trio, syncopation from O’Callaghan – a jazzy, urban here-and-now of a Kyrie, innocence on the dance floor. Times change. To make the point further, we then reverted to more florid decoration – a vision of purity, placing a flesh-and-blood woman on a Victorian pedestal.

In this eclectic way, we move through Istanbul, Nature (the ecstatic Sufi poem “Ah Kalleli!”), Dance of the Dictators, Death and Dying (“an absolutely individual and intimate journey, which every human creature must ultimately take” – ending in flames of extinction from the Dies Irae), Old Photographs (faces on the screen; poignancy from the Gryphon Trio) and inspiringly, not farewell, but Alleluia.

We celebrate, Tollar and O’Callaghan celebrate, the Gryphon Trio celebrate the two trees of differing faiths feeding from the same roots, “joined in a universal journey in which we all share”. The singing, the instrumental playing, the movements, the Islamic arch and the twelve bowls of clear water placed along the edge of the stage all, in their different ways, invoked a rapt quietude – radiant and sublime.

This is truly a work of art and a creation – a combination of two ravishing singers, possibly the most dynamic of all piano trios extant, the staging – together with inspired costumes, artefacts and images. And then, the magical aural thread of Christos Hatzis’s music – all life was in its varied styles, including the recorded sound and electronic interventions. This eminently accessible music deserves frequent hearings – so as to ensure one does not forget its radiance nor lose memory of its delicately intricate subtlety, so lightly purveyed.

As part of the celebration they were inviting, I made my own silent contribution. I remembered Luciano Berio and his belief that all music derived from the music of the people. I remembered William Blake and William Bolcom’s rich and varied settings of “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. I remembered, too, “The Soldier’s Tale” at the Old Vic – a joint enterprise of British and Iraqi human-beings suffering involuntary involvement in warfare.

  • Remaining performances on 23 & 24 March at 8 o’clock; and on 25 March at 4 o’clock
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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