Thursday, 14 June 2012

Bow Down, Spitalfields Festival

"This bloke thought he'd come to see an opera!" shouts a character from the stage, pointing at the front row. The hapless punter wasn't alone in being ambushed by the oddity of Harrison Birtwistle's Bow Down, in this production by The Opera Group for the Spitalfields Festival.  The girl next to me had crossed over from giggling to weeping with laughter. A large chap behind me snoring through the first half had his own sort of response to the show.

Bow Down is a fairy tale rendered in speech above song. Whether it is opera is questionable at best. There are sung passages but the sustained music comes in the recurrent and often complicated rhythms of speech, that this production's 'mumming' style of narrative offers. Certainly the voices weren't trained as their principal function. I chose to ascribe the extraordinary palette of microtonal tuning with which we were presented to the folk idiom of the tale at hand (though Rehana Brown's flute and Mana Shibata's oboe playing deserve distinct mention).

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 MinotaurThe 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.

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