Monday, 20 April 2015

Hyperverismo (Between Worlds, ENO at the Barbican)


Tansy Davies, 'Between Worlds' (Gerry Cornelius cond. ENO at the Barbcian)

It takes a brave librettist (Nick Drake) and composer (Tansy Davies) to even think about tackling 9/11. Is it too soon? Is it in bad ‘taste’? Is it offensive? Nobody with a passing interest in contemporary opera could have missed the Peter Gelb fiasco – Klinghoffergate – when the Met baulked and cancelled the relay in late 2014. That’s after nearly 30 years. 2001, and the worst atrocity on US soil, must be far too recent; it might take a century.
Davies doesn’t show the planes (even if we hear something similar out the pit); there’s no suggestion of terrorism; perpetrators are entirely absent; the actual scale of death is implicit but only with occasional reference to the melee in the staircases. We aren’t confronted then with the horror so much in vision or action, but in words. We deal with a handful of individuals. The scale is ducked, but not the scope. The ninety minute work may be divided into thirds. In the first, people are going about their day, including our character – leaving partners, children, home to go to work, meetings in the tower. The child who sulks with his mother and doesn’t say goodbye. That kind of thing. They aren’t all likeable – but that’s rather the point. They are human. And five land up trapped on a floor, with a Janitor (Eric Greene). Greene had been such a magnificent Gunther in Opera North’s Götterdämmerung last summer. Our six, discovering they are trapped, spend the next half hour in confusion and fear, before saying goodbye; the horror then unfolds. Those outside aren’t much better off: urged not to watch the TV, told that they are loved, implored to care for children. Susan Bickley (also ON Götterdämmerung), played mother to one of the trapped, perched on the edge of the pit, in abject sorrow. A reminder of the human scale.
It took something like 102 minutes from the first plane crashing in to the towers to the second collapsing, roughly the length of the opera. The libretto used contemporary idiom but was also inspired by the vast tranche of pager and text messages which later entered the public domain via ‘wikileaks’. These were printed out onto sheets of paper and, affixed to a net, provided the background which lights and projections made Manhattan skyline, a view of the world. This net could sway, and upon some lever, collapse, release most of the paper – visually instantly recognizable. A nod too, perhaps, to the tower of Babel. Projections were by Tal Yarden (who designed those for Brokeback Mountain for La Scala). The chorus pick up these messages at the end and sing them. In this sense, there is something going beyond realism. If verismo tried to be closer to natural speech patterns – how people really talk, this went beyond that.  Thus the text itself might be labelled hyperverismo.
Abstraction was employed perhaps to make the thing comprehensible. Or really make that which was represented incomprehensible.  To really look inside the towers, the dust, the trapped, the flames, would be to look too directly into the pit of hell. As Greene leaps from the tower and ascends and then falls, we skirt the issue of gravity. It would be too much. We don’t really get the horror of those leaping out the windows to certain death as the better option.
Simplicity is the watchword; without being gimmick. Not pared back to make a point, but for clarity. The staging was three tiers, the top two made of glass. Atop and alone, a Shaman (Countertenor Andrew Watts),  which I could not really comprehend fully; below Realtor (Clare Presland), a Younger Man (William Morgan) – who entered scared of heights, in search of a job), Older Man (Philip Rhodes).
Farther below, Sarah Champion loses her partner;  a Babysitter (Claire Egan) has to care for the child permanently, and a Sister (Niamh Kelly) must mourn alone. Heroism comes from Greene, but also Security Guard (Ronald Samm – whose title role in Opera North’s Otello was so devastating) offered assurance to the cowering; Philip Sheffield and Rodney Earl Clarke played Firefighters. We had then, in this cast, one god and a few precious heroes.
Greene and Samm stood out, as did Rhian Lois. Yet the real strength was collective. This really was an ensemble piece.
Perhaps the thing which will stay with me longest was the applause. It wasn’t the usual sound of applause, murmur of discussion, congratulation. There weren’t individual curtain calls. The conductor and musicians remained in the pit. The orchestra didn’t start packing up eyeing the next train. Instead, a near capacity hall sat clapping, silent in every other regard, before leaving in meek quiet.  With Davies we had looked over the cliff, but been pulled back just in time. ‘About suffering’, reckoned W. H. Auden, ‘they were never wrong’.
I stepped outside, and felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. Glad I'd gone, though.

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As a post-script: Re. discussion at large on taste and propriety of this, I’d offer only three points.
  1. This is done with as much taste and propriety as possible.
  2. This is what art is for.
  3. Opera’s strength is that it says what words cannot. And there aren’t words to express this. So opera has to do it.
Some production images here.
Newspaper articles have appeared (Tom Service in the Guardian, interview in the Guardian, Guardian blog, Daily Mail, Independent; further afield, WQXR, Times of India). Also: Sinfini Music; ENO site
Cast and team:
Composed by Tansy Davies
Libretto by Nick Drake
Conducted by Gerry Cornelius
Directed by Deborah Warner
Design by Michael Levine
Lighting by Jean Kalman
Choreography by Kim Brandstrup
Shaman Andrew Watts
Janitor Eric Greene
Younger Woman Rhian Lois
Realtor Clare Presland
Younger Man William Morgan
Older Man Philip Rhodes
Mother Susan Bickley

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