Thursday, 14 June 2012
Bow Down, Spitalfields Festival
The chief characteristic of the work is that of organic storytelling. Birtwistle's publishers note the location specific flexibility of the work, which goes hand-in-glove with it's much-touted improvisation. As is often the way with even barely competent improvisation, it's difficult to tell where the score ends and the decisisons of the performers takes over, not least as this will have been in the rehearsal room. That said, there's a sense of ownership from the individual performers that one doesn't always achieve with an opera company performing a score. The object can get in the way.
I was initially perturbed by this distinction, having prepared to see an opera but, in the event, finding with a play. However, once I had made the transition in my own mind I found the work dramatic, striking and sincere. The rhythm of the words was as gripping a music - in this different art-paradigm - as any conventional score. This was just as well as the clear but cavernous and multi-chambered space of the Village Underground meant that I found I lost many of the words (many of which were in some sort of auld-English dialect).
It also confirmed what I have felt in many of the Birtwistle stage scores that I have struggled with over the past five years or so (Angel Fighter, The Minotaur, The Mask of Orpheus and Punch and Judy, for example). For all that there are occasional cloud breaks in the orchestration, the sound is simply too congested, as if his inner ear gets the better of him. Of course, with only the occasional flute, oboe or penny whistle to work with the singing or drumming here that may seem a misguided thing to say. However, the overlay of voices when speaking is as tell-tale an indication of this character of sound-organisation. The prologue of the work lost vital words on a metrically regular basis as they clashed with organised spasms of noise. It may be argued that this is a fault of the performers, assuming responsibility in the improvisation of the music and even an issue of the resonance of the space. They are, nonetheless, issues that a composer - certainly one with this composer's pedigree - might reasonably have been expected to foresee.
Issues that could not be excused concerned the staging. The playground roundabout, lighting and final tableau were all well-designed and utilised. It wasn't great that the performance was at floor level though. Within the first quarter of an hour a woman in the third row got up to try and get a better sightline to characters lying on the floor, so one can imagine how futile it was for those of us seven or more rows back. The rake in the seating was less use than lip-service.
Worse, a late sequence involves the players moving around the audience, playing instruments. The balance at such a moment was totally overbearing in this close, hard acoustic against the text being recited on the stage and became unbearable when the score calls for a late crescendo... on a penny whistle. Next to our ears! Such thoughtless direction will always put off even the most well-disposed, open-minded audience.