Elliott Carter: What Next? – 1st May 2001

Elliott Carter
What Next?
– An opera in one act with libretto by Paul Griffiths (UK Premiere)

Valdine Anderson (soprano) – Rose; Christopher Purves (baritone) – Harry or Larry; Rosemary Hardy (soprano) – Mama; Christopher Gillett (tenor) – Zen; Hilary Summers (contralto) – Stella; Gwilym Bowen (alto) – Kid

London Sinfonietta conducted by Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 May, 2001
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

It was beginning to seem as though the UK premiere of What Next? would take as long to happen as it took Elliott Carter to write it. Devising a suitable programme no doubt added to the floundering of a planned staging at Glyndebourne, but then the tentative double-bill with Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins would have done neither operas any favours. The Berlin premiere coupled it with Schoenberg’s Von Heute auf Morgen – appropriate in that both share a capricious approach to the question of non- communication, but risky box-office at the best of times. Carter has apparently been mulling over the possibility of a companion piece. Should this not come about, the logical solution would be a scenic presentation of his three song-cycles from 1975-81 (A Mirror on Which to Dwell; Syringa; In Sleep, in Thunder): a challenge to a director’s sensitivity and judgement.

The problem was met on this occasion by librettist Paul Griffiths – who, in a neatly stage-managed first half, discussed the opera’s characters and situation purely from the perspective of the orchestral contribution, dovetailing his comments with substantial extracts from the score. This worked up to a point. Given the absorbing interest of that component in itself, a performance of the whole 40-minute work, without soloists, might have been even more enlightening. And while a dozen or so ’perusal copies’ of the libretto were on circulation around the QEH, the programme itself failed to include even a synopsis; essential if salient events were to be at least perceived. Standing to the rear of the orchestra, the singers projected their vocal lines with clarity and confidence, but semantic meaning is hard to convey in such an intricate dovetailing of words and music as this. However, these reservations are outweighed by the benefit of hearing the piece ’in the flesh’.

What was heard will have come as nothing other than a pleasant surprise to those familiar with Carter’s music of the last two decades: not so much a summation as a distillation and direct articulation of it. Described as an ’opera in one act’, What Next? would be more fittingly termed a ’situation in 38 episodes’, given the speed and imagination with which the six characters interact in their search for identity and reason: victims of an ’accident’ of which they are as uncomprehending as the audience. Highly interwoven though their dialogue may be, its intelligibility in real-time is aided by distinctive contrasts in character- and vocal-type.

Rose, moving between vacuity and self-absorption, glassily insincere in the melisma of Valdine Anderson; Harry or Larry – his name, like his persona, of little account – had the right irritation in the grating tones of Christopher Purves; Mama, a would-be Mother to them all, eloquently taken by Rosemary Hardy; Zen, a self-styled and woolly visionary who might have strayed from a Tippett libretto, made mellifluously ineffectual by Christopher Gillett; Stella, an astronomer of insight tempered by vulnerability, heard in the suitably luminous tones of Hilary Summers; and Kid, a twelve-year-old boy who emerges from his largely observational role to pose the opera’s intrinsic question and define its essence (episodes 36 and 38) faithfully represented in the stage presence of Gwilym Bowen.

It hardly needs saying that the large chamber orchestra was saturated in typically Carterian touches – incisive, invigorating and, as in the ’singing stage’ interlude (episode 19) touchingly intimate. An absolute virtue is made out of relative necessity by integrating the initial ’accident’ into the musical fabric – the virtuoso writing for untuned percussion a recurrent feature, above all when two other-worldly roadworkers arrive (episode 31) to steer the opera into its climactic stage. The whole ensemble was directed with unobtrusive yet absolute authority by Oliver Knussen, unrivalled in his understanding of late Carter; where wisdom is never tainted by experience, only strengthened and enriched by it.

Not a flawless presentation overall, but a timely and musically convincing one that whets anticipation for a full staging – hopefully not long in coming.

  • What Next? was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast
  • The second of the London Sinfonietta’s New to London concerts is in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday, 16 May, at 7.45 – Oliver Knussen conducts pieces by Richard Rijnvos and Esa-Pekka Salonen; and the world premiere of a Sinfonietta commission, Cyclops (2000) by Charles Wuorinen

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