Saturday, 18 August 2012

A Voice Of One Delight, Tete A Tete Opera Festival

Photo: Claire Shovelton
This evening I saw an opera being staged as part of the now familiar Tête à Tête Opera Festival, a fortnight-long showcase for new work no less intriguing, confounding and entertaining for its now being rather well established. I had come to see A Voice Of One Delight, a half-hour monodrama for solo mezzo-soprano in a production by McCaldin Arts. Such small-scale lyric dramas are the essential works of the festival, providing a coherent platform not only for composer and performer but for all involved in their production. A Voice Of One Delight was a high-calibre working example of this, a triplo espresso of poetry in music, staging and text, the title and content drawn from both the work and life's-end of the poet Shelley. As a friend of the production (full disclosure!) I would be inclined to see the best in the work. However it's always a pleasure to see one's expectations exceeded and for a multi-disciplinary project to come together with such consistency and quality.

Naturally, the unusually flamboyant coda to the life of one of the 19th century's most celebrated poets carries plenty of charge to fill out the 35 minute drama. The piece was born from a single image, Louis Edouard Fournier's The Burial Of Shelley, showing his open cremation on the beach in La Spezia where his body had been washed ashore following a naval accident. Originally a concert work by Stephen McNeff for the mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin, this staged version has been adapted by the performer and the director Joe Austin.

The solo performer plays at least two roles, explicitly Shelley's widow Mary and his likely lover Jane Williams. Other voices, those of Williams' husband Edward, who perished with Shelley, and Byron splash into the narrative like waves. Words from all four and Shelley himself are both sung and spoken, the drama linked through in Stephen McNeff's music, the staging and video projection.

A Voice Of One Delight is not a conventional 'murder mystery'. There is a sense of cataloguing, of investigation with the stage dominated by a desk covered in scraps of paper studied and annotated by the performer. Yet this pursuit of understanding frequently dissipates. Other voices (literally, through live-mixed and pre-recorded sound design by Steve Mayo) distract, or a fragment of poetry or a journal becomes expanded in song. Throughout the opera - and this was key to my appreciation of the event - the more straightforward experience is emotional. The dry, archaeological pursuit of facts is continually dissolved. In A Voice of One Delight clarity is achieved through expression not explanation.

Photo: Claire Shovelton
For example, storage boxes line the back of the set, the archive inviting the investigation but they are more alive as symbols. Looking as if they might equally be a stack of coffins, they are most effective as a screen for Adam Young's video montage. This might be the elusive code of Linear B as a work of Shelley's. Either way, still or animated, it looks rather like the tongues of flame coiled around the beachside pyre. The papers already out and on the desk seem more like ash then letters; reading their contents into a microphone-as-a-dictaphone is instantly subsumed by the echoes of other voices and simply asserts the imperfection of memory.

The fateful voyage in the bay is replicated in a simple coup from designer Simon Kenny: a teal tablecloth (blending with the graphite grey of Clare McCaldin's dress) is pulled up and down to recreate the peaks and eddies of the sea for a toy boat (one is reminded of the Breton fisherman's prayer that JFK sat on his Oval Office desk - 'O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small'). A fan starts up to recreate the storm. If the sturm und drang of the paper being blown off the table weren't enough one has the mental image of the white peaks of the waves themselves.

For all the richness of the symbolism, A Voice Of One Delight relies on its performer to give life and coherence to the words, space and drama. Studio 2 at The Riverside favoured Clare McCaldin's strong recital pedigree and the chamber concert origins of Stephen McNeff's music with a dry-but-not-dead acoustic (not to mention the silent, absorbed audience). A carefully controlled sung line worked well with spoken dialogue (in two languages, English and Italian). Crucially, the staging had been worked out in conjunction with the choreographer Petra Söör. Careful, seamless transition emerges as key to the piece both from one part of the space to another and between characters. Clare McCaldin's gesture and movement is supple and measured with clear distinction in character between episodes. In this she was helped by the dramatically aware accompaniment of Elizabeth Burgess (playing a piano reduction of the score). The music requires as much care in its transition, moving in and out of focus, as the staging.

I went to see A Voice Of One Delight on consecutive nights, its two well-attended performances at the festival. I was struck that I had an identical experience on the second night to that of the first. Naturally, on a professional level this is testament to the consistency of the performance.

More to the point it gives an indication of what the work is trying to achieve. There is no revelation or catharsis in this work. Instead we are invited into the natural swell of the experience of Shelley's 'Pisian circle' of friends, but with the twin buoys of the poets' metaphors and the bare contemporaneous facts left intact, unexplained. It's a rare sort of work that presents a mystery that opens itself yet retains its mystique.

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