Monkey Trips / Dream Hunter

Libby Larsen
Trio in Four Movements
Annea Lockwood
Monkey Trips
Nicola LeFanu
Dream Hunter – to a libretto to John Fuller [London premiere performances]

Dream Hunter
Catarina – Charmian Bedford
Angela – Caryl Hughes
Sampiero – Brian Smith Walters
Domenico – Jeremy Huw Williams

Odaline de la Martinez

Carmen Jakobi – Director
Kimie Nakano – Designer
Filippo de Capitani – Lighting

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 3 February, 2012
Venue: Wilton's Music Hall, London

What could be better as the weather turns for the worse than to escape into Wilton’s Music Hall – in a week that has seen it being granted a substantial sum (over £700,000) to help it become a permanent venue – to hear a new opera, one that is set in Corsica, so keeping the temperature up inside as they plummet outside. This was the second (of three) performances, marking the London premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s seventh opera, after a gap of seven years, presented by Lontano and Odaline de la Martinez. A Britten-Pears Foundation commission, Dream Hunter had toured Wales last October.

Teaming up, for the first time on an opera, with poet, novelist and critic John Fuller, LeFanu’s original plan to find an extant Corsican tale with women characters (Merimée’s Mateo Falcone would have been perfect except it has no females) eventually led to Fuller creating an original story about the mazzere tradition – the dream hunters of Corsica. The plot, simply but effectively staged by Carmen Jakobi under a looming projection of the moon, is about Catarina’s power of dreaming to at-first harm and then (spoiler alert!) dispose of the duplicitous wooer and soon-to-be-husband of her sister Angela.

Set in the late 19th-century, this story could be a foil for Cavalleria rusticana, Mascagni’s Sicilian verismo revenge tragedy, although I fear the new opera’s lack of inherent drama would make the pairing unbalanced. I’ve often wondered whether one of the problems of contemporary opera is a reliance on poets rather than dramatists as librettists. While not as bad as many contemporary opera I’ve seen, Dream Hunter was in danger of unfolding at a steady pace: As it happened, the final scenes did up the dramatic ante, as Catarina dreams the demise of Sampiero, but what little earlier drama was dissipated in an all-too gentle, albeit generous, musical score. Fuller mentions in the programme’s interview that “the greatest lesson the librettist learns (and re-learns!) is that finally it is the music that does everything” – but I’d argue that it can’t necessarily inject drama into a non-dramatic libretto.

On the plus side, I particularly liked Charmian Bedford’s Catarina and her extended opening duet with Caryl Hughes’s Angelica (who also has a lovely aria ‘All you unhappy wives’), although sometimes, even in an intimate venue and with small accompanying forces, clear diction proved difficult. I found the tenor-writing for Brian Smith Walters’s Sampiero sometimes too high, and Jeremy Huw Williams looked too young to have fathered two daughters of marrying age! I was intrigued about the background of their gambling song ‘Give me your chestnuts’ and their crushing – but probably for the wrong reasons.

LeFanu’s music for flute, clarinet, trombone, harp, percussion, violin and cello is intricate and distinctive, if often at too uniform a pace. But the piece does not outstay its 50-minute length. It was filmed, but only for archive purposes.

The first half of the evening was given over to two contrasting pieces by other women composers. Unfortunately the programme gave no biographical or work-date information about either, so I’ve had to do a search to find that the Trio in Four Movements by Libby Larsen was composed in 2005. It is evocatively scored for flute, viola and harp, and each movement is quite distinctive, a heady mix of French and English sensibilities that I found quite appealing.

Very much contrasting was Monkey Trips by New Zealand composer Annea Lockwood, a virtuosic theatrical piece, largely improvised for alto flute, clarinet, harp, percussion, violin and cello. All members of Lontano had memorised their material and used Wilton’s forestage to enact their drama, seemingly based on six states/realms of Tibetan Buddhism. The squeaks, scratches, whirring and grunts reminded of Berio or Ligeti, here with the instrumentalists ‘acting’ and moving in various patterns across the stage, until brought to a rude halt by a drum riff and ribald laughing as they departed. Weird, yes, but also rather wonderful.

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