Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Operashots, Royal Opera - Fitkin and Hannon

A delay in setting up the stage for Graham Fitkin's Home, the first of last night's two Operashots is understandable. I'm not going to reveal how it unfolds but suffice to say that the piece reflects the nature of home - the place, it's fabric and the people that constitute a home. Here's the trailer:

Clearly this is opera in one of the recognised sense of the term, a melange of lyric-theatricality, with dancers as the protagonists, singers articulating the narrative of the staging. Even the band gets involved.

Which was where he first obstacle was to be found. The decision was taken to amplify both the band and the singers (head mics) and consequently the performance was too loud, unsatisfactorily balanced and veiled the quality of Victoria Cooper and Melanie Pappenheim's singing. I also struggled to make out a single word of text and, with no supertitles, this was a serious privation. Luckily the quality of the dancing (and director Jasmin Vardimon's choreography) meant that the warp and weft of the narrative was easy to follow. I must also commend Jesse Collett's video animation for the same reason.

Graham Fitkin's music is a vibrant, light-filled continuum of rhythmic sound in a post John Adams-by-way-of-Jonathan Dove manner (to use a facile analogy). The voices are grafted over the top, also in the manner of Dove and the drama comes in the tonal shifts which are analogous to shifts of light, so the bright-tungsten palette used by Chahine Yavroyan in an autumnal situation was appropriate. I enjoyed this first theatre piece by letting it was over me and trying not to worry about the marginalisation of the singing.

Rather like a previous visit to the Operashots project, I had been drawn to hearing a successful musician in another sphere having a go a writing for the stage. Neil Hannon is an intelligent songwriter, notable for hand-in-glove music and lyrics all dispatched with a generous wit. Certainly his version of Tolstoy's account of the conflict at Sevastopol had concise segments of song, whose interesting harmony was well-reflected in a pit band of about a dozen (including musicians that Hannon has worked with in the past). Here's his trailer:

As individual meditations on the situations in which Richard Burkhard's Tolstoy found himself, I think Hannon's invention worked well enough, although the eight-scene conceit seemed more like a staged song-cycle than an opera. Transitions were perfunctory, usually marked with a pre-recorded voice-over whilst a scene change was going on. The rhetoric of the piece was also marked out in much the same way as Stewart Copeland's effort in a previous project, whereby the characters exist  largely exclusively in a relationship with the audience. There was very little genuine dialogue in this piece (and none in Home), interactions between characters being prompts for more information rather than genuine, drama-building exchanges.

Still Burkhard sang very well (though, again, text was a bit of an issue) and conductor Gerry Cornelius' straightforward handling of the material was entirely in keeping with Hannon's own notes on writing the piece in the programme - 'to stop thinking and make something human and, if you're lucky, moving.'

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