Friday, 23 May 2014

New Music Theatre in London this May

One is able to see new music drama performances in London at almost any time. Usually the summer sees a spike in this sort of activity with the Grimeborn and Tete a Tete opera festivals. However, this May seems to have served up more than our fair share of diverse and probing musical theatrics. Or maybe I've just had the opportunity to go to plenty of them.

De Profundis is a one-man show by Paul Dale Vickers, setting - or, probably more accurately, based on - the poem of the title by Oscar Wilde. The piece is the full length production of Dale Vickers' entry for The New Musical Project earlier in the year. An hour-long work of steady affect provides solo performer Alastair Brookshaw a good platform for his stage and vocal talent, aided with some sharp lighting at the cosy but accommodating Leicester Square theatre studio.

The next day I went to the opposite extreme, just around the corner at the London Coliseum. Thebans is Julian Anderson's first opera, a commission from English National Opera and composed to a libretto from Frank McGuinness after Sophocles. Three self-contained acts essay Oedipus' enlightenment and downfall, the consequent totalitarian state under Creon and its attendant tragedy, and then - out of order - a flashback to the inbetween episode of Oedipus' demise in exile.

A consistent, rhetorical drama which is closer to the Greek model of the original than McGuinness' largely well-judged vernacular adaptation might suggest 'on the page' gives Anderson a nice basis for his imaginative score, with exotic percussion and notably beautiful music for the chorus. ENO's chorus (chorus mastered by Dominic Peckham) respond with excellent, well-calibrated and supremely musical singing for which the solo contributions (with baritone Roland Wood as Oedipus) are technically admirable gilding. I heard the space and light of a neoclassical score and the atonal angles of vocal lines from the same sort of period. Thebans is a substantial and an indisputably original work, which refers to a compositional period where this originality was well-prized.

The following week I was back in the fringe chamber venues of London. The Horse Hospital, complete with extant sloping walkways for its erstwhile patients, 'provides a space for underground and avantgarde media' which on this occasion meant Charles Webber's Room of Worlds to a libretto by former punk singer Eve Libertine. A conflagration of singing, speech, movement and a static but sophisticated digital montage told a story based loosely on The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, documenting a woman's experience of being socially marginalised in a patriarchal society as she is diagnosed as mentally unfit. The sold-out event boasted performances as committed I came across all month, particularly from Cara Mchardy whose uncompromisingly well produced, weighty soprano voice really deserved a bigger space in which to be heard effectively.

Since seeing this show the Horse Hospital has come under threat. More information about this unique, interesting and useful venue in central London can be found here.

BBC/Mark Allan, via classical-iconoclast
Last week saw the Harrison Birtwistle 80th birthday celebrations at the Barbican. I went to see Gawain - yes see, as it was semi-staged with lighting and basic stage marking. Gawain is only just over 20 years old, having been premiered by the Royal Opera (who commissioned it) in 1991 and then in a revised version in 1994. We got the original, more or less. This is a totemic score of mature, dense Birtwistle sound, less frenetic than Punch and Judy, more strident than the ruminative Minotaur. The intensity of the expressionism gives away the relentless vitality in the heart of the score, although it also provides a serious challenge to the singers; I heard the second half from the foyer where the balance through individual mics on the singers and (presumably) a mixing desk, had greatly clarity than in the hall (I had sat to an extreme side of the stalls).

The medieval English romance seems a comfortable fit for Birtwistle's music (for all its wild atonality, the score seems to have a restricted, decorous colour palette). The BBC Singers provide an off-stage Greek chorus, comparable in its accomplishment to the ENO chorus for Thebans earlier in the month, albeit behind microphones and consequently dampening the impression of its impact in the hall. Excellence was standard among the singers, though I marvelled additionally at Leigh Melrose, singing swaggering baritone-in-alt one moment and then padding about as a dead man walking the next - a more mellifluous encounter than the more parlando role of Wozzeck in which he shone at the Coliseum last year. Sir John Tomlinson reprised his Green Knight, a role written for him by the composer, on a day off from Schoenberg's Moses for WNO. I also felt that Rachel Nicholls made the Queen look a lot easier than it must have been.

On Thursday I was back in the wilds of a Zone 2 fringe venue, at the GOlive series in the Lion and Unicorn pub Theatre in Kentish Town. INvocation is a one-woman show, an hour-long drama from Peta Lily which reports back on the funny-to-surreal experience of trying to pursue a life in drama whilst wanting to tie down the reasonable trappings of a modern middle-class life.

INvocation is, unlike these other shows, a spoken drama (though we get snatches of a song and a particularly funny skit involving a suit of armour, Siegfried's horn call and a profit chart rendered in salt). The compelling and unifying element of the performance is the precision and consistency of Peta Lily's movement, which is continually engaged with the modest audience, never stinting, even when thrown the odd curve-ball retort during periodic fourth wall-waiving. In tandem with purpose and control of her face, body shapes and some voices - not to mention some sharply responsive lighting cues - this made for clear emotional narrative.

Finally this evening I went to Notting Hill's The Print Room to see a trio of operatic scenes from Opera Erratica. Triptych - Reunion, A Party and The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by different composers to texts by Patrick Eakin Young started off as if bearing some content-resemblance to Puccini's Il Trittico, but then the nuns start to take their clothes off...

In fact the switching of affect between the self-contained dramas is similar to Puccini's mix of emotional centres. All the pieces were a fully integrated mix of highly accurate and exposed singing against a spare, electronically processed pre-recorded track. In addition the cast carried out an interdependent matrix of prop placement, choreography and costume changes (well, largely removal!). This was all in a bright set designed by Gavin Turk which doubled as a screen for live and recorded projections. As with A Room Of Worlds, the use of recorded sound worked as there was no attempt to integrate this with the performers, balance-wise. Rather, recorded voices was treated as a separate entity, balanced to the room and with its own character retained as a feature rather than made to suffer some pseud assimilation.

I laughed properly and with abandon at the simple comic conceit of A Party and the outer movements were invested with genuine sobriety. All-in it's less than 75 mins long and well worth experiencing for yourself during its long run.

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