Kommilitonen! [Opera by Peter Maxwell Davies & David Pountney at Royal Academy of Music]

Peter Maxwell Davies
Kommilitonen! – Opera in two acts to a libretto by David Pountney [Co-commissioned by Royal Academy of Music and Juilliard School: world premiere production]

Voice of Pokayne / Wu Tianshi (Father) – Jonathan McGovern
James Meredith – Adam Marsden
Sophie Scholl – Nathalie Chalkley
Willi Graf – Frederick Long
Hans Scholl – Johnny Herford
Christoph Probst / The Evangelist – Stephen Aviss
Alexander Schmorell / The Grand Inquisitor – John-Owen Miley-Read
Li Jingji (Mother) – Irina Gheorghiu
Wu (Son) – Rachel Kelly
Li (Daughter) – Runette Botha

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover

David Pountney – Director
Robert Innes Hopkins – Designer
James Farncombe – Lighting
Carolyn Choa – Choreographer
Blind Summit Theatre – Puppetry

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 March, 2011
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

At the time of the premiere of his understated and intriguing music-theatre piece “Mr Emmett Takes a Walk”, almost a decade ago, Peter Maxwell Davies stated his intention not to write any further dramatic works. There was no little surprise, then, when “Kommilitonen!” was announced and, indeed, this co-commission between the Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music has an impact and tenacity one might have expected from a composer half the age of Maxwell Davies – he and David Pountney having assembled a piece whose formal compression and overt emotional immediacy is both its chief asset and, in the ultimate analysis, its fundamental failing.

The title translates as “Young Blood!” and youth is the essence of this conflation of three narratives which, between them, survey the role of young people in extreme social and political contexts. These (in sequential order) are the determination of mature student James Meredith to enter Mississippi University in 1962, when he became the first black person to do so despite a level of hostility that required a large police protection; the reckless audacity, even naivety, of a group of student activists from Munich University in 1942, whose illicit campaign to warn Germans of the atrocities being committed in the same of National Socialism led to their execution; and the interrogation then execution, during China’s Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, of a university professor and his wife after being denounced by their children – the son going on to assume an academic post similar to that of his father while playing down the truth concerning his parents’ fate.

The work itself is structured as two acts of respectively 18 and 10 scenes (the first with a duration of 57 minutes, the second of 33), which unfold a predominantly fast-paced drama of situation, action and resolution. In the first act, this is largely successful in the way that the different narratives succeed and even overlap with each other so that connection and continuity emerge out of contrast and disparity, with at least one scene in each narrative allowing for expansion of character and motive. Juxtaposition, of course, is not the same as superimposition, and the attempt in the second act to bring these narratives together, and thereby achieve a reconciliation of dramatic means towards an endorsement of ideological ends, largely misfires. Not that this is owing to half-heartedness on the part of either librettist or composer; rather that the outcome is too generalised in the face of such diversity to be other than an aspiration to be desired instead of a conviction capable of being attained.

This failing is attributable to both libretto and music. For the most part succinct and easily communicable, Pountney’s text yet struggles to touch on the deeper motivations of the protagonists and their actions – without which, the content remains at a remove from empathy or compassion. A key instance is the Grand Inquisitor’s scene in Act Two – every word made intelligible and their meaning made plain, yet failing to galvanise the whole such that the audience is made to feel other than a passive observer. In this respect, Pountney’s staging is appreciably more effective – vividly evocative of place and time in the case of the American and German narratives, and graphically evocative in that of the Chinese, where Robert Innes Hopkins’s designs and Blind Summit Theatre’s puppetry combine to unnerving effect. Elsewhere, though, the picture-book immediacy gives a two-dimensional feeling to situations that really need greater emotional resonance in their portrayal.

Musically this is among the most visceral and also hard-hitting of Davies’s latter-day scores. The composer has stated the necessity of having to “invent” musical styles for each of the stories and, while this does not involve merely a return to the parody familiar from numerous of his earlier pieces, it does include a degree of stereotype which tends towards pastiche. Moreover the confluence of the three styles, as the drama reaches its climax, into a unified thematic ‘source’ is simply not distinctive or memorable enough to underpin the intended dramatic synthesis. A pity, as Maxwell Davies is a borne dramatist (as anyone who is familiar with the recent recording of his opera “Taverner” will surely concur), but this work is no more (and arguably less) successful in its treatment of not dissimilar content than was, say, Tippett’s “The Ice Break” some 35 years ago: in both cases, heightened dramatic conclusions are stated which the music falls appreciably short of encompassing.

In this second performance, but a first for some of the participants, what did not fall short was the commitment of the cast (some roles double-cast) in its projecting of theatrical fervency. In particular, Adam Marsden conveyed a restraint and nobility as Meredith – the ‘still’ point of a volatile drama – while Nathalie Chalkley and Johnny Herford were wholly sympathetic as the Scholl siblings, with Rachel Kelly and Runette Botha complementing each other touchingly as children of the revolution Wu and Li. Steven Aviss and John-Owen Miley-Read complemented each other eloquently as the Evangelist and the Grand Inquisitor, while the remaining singers acquitted their sometimes multiple roles ably. Jane Glover secured a lively and attentive response from the Royal Academy Sinfonietta, with the occasional edginess of ensemble as well as rawness of intonation arguably in keeping with the spirit of the music. As an opera designed expressly for students, it could not be more apposite and one can appreciate Maxwell Davies’s desire to take on the challenge.

In what was a pragmatic yet significant decision, the work is cast without heed to the ethnic compatibility between singers and characters. At a time when such considerations are arguably to the detriment of theatrical and operatic staging (why no professional production of “Otello” in London this past decade?), this decision is not only even-handed but also the right one if performers of whatever racial background are to share the stage in future as equals. In which respect, “Kommilitonen!” may have left its mark as a cultural statement to a degree that the work fails to do in dramatic or musical terms. For all its shortcomings, this was an absorbing evening.

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