Long, long ago (well, 2004), I had never read an opera blogpost, let alone written one. I was unaware of the burgeoning online communities of opera fans, and if I had been, wouldn’t have been interested. The only reviews I read were of performances that friends were involved in, and for that matter, the only times I attended were when it was somebody else’s idea. This is not to say that I disliked opera: on the contrary, I generally enjoyed the performances very much while remaining happily ignorant of any finer details of the art form. I owned recordings and scores of only Carmen, Tosca and The Ring, and felt that was quite enough to be going on with. Anyway, there were a few performances I attended during the mid-noughties which stand out as successive tipping points in turning me from an orchestra geek who didn’t mind if some singers were joining in with the music while acting out some daft story, to an opera fan; David McVicar’s brilliantly witty and visually stunning Faust at the ROH was one of these few. Thus the work – and by association, that particular production – is assured a special place in my heart. Bryn Terfel’s turn as Mephisto alone would probably have convinced me, even without Alagna, Gheorghiu, the luxury casting of Keenlyside as Valentin, and probably the funniest ballet I’ve ever seen. I really wish I’d reviewed it in detail, but of course, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do any such thing, any more than it would have occurred to me (while accompanying my companion in her stage-door-stalking of Mr Alagna) to yell “Oy Bryn, nice dress!” at Mr Terfel. Alors, you perhaps see my difficulty in assuring I am making a properly fair assessment of Des McAnuff’s new Faust at the ENO.
As the first gentle strains of music began (and an elderly gentleman behind me picked his moment to begin unwrapping what was clearly the most thoroughly-wrapped boiled sweet in the world), a huge video image of Toby Spence’s disembodied head was projected onto the scrim, and I nearly giggled because it reminded me of Old Star Trek, when they often had big alien heads appear on the screen in similar manner, to bellow threateningly at the brave crew. Later on, Melody Moore’s huge disembodied head was projected in the same manner, but this was even better, because there was the sci-fi set to go with it. Yes, no stuffy old alchemist’s den for Dr Faust, for this was more Dr Atomic in a chrome and white 20th century lab with beakers of chemicals and model bombs and people in white coats and stuff. I have said before, I rather like productions set in unexpected time periods – the Flying Dutchman on a spaceship, Macbeth with machine guns, Emperor Nero snorting coke or Sherlock Holmes with an InterPol smartphone app, etc. I’m not so good with combinations of different periods, though, such as here, some chorus as mid-20th century scientists, some as 1st World War soldiers, and some as 19th century Arcadian milkmaids. To be fair, the concept behind this became sort-of clear later — it turns out that rather than just physically de-ageing, Faust travels back to the time when he was young (or does he – aha!), which the rest of his lab get to watch through the Satanic time portal. Either that or there was a burglary in the ENO store cupboard and they had to borrow all the women’s costumes from D’Oyly Carte. (I could insert an unnecessarily rude comment here about also borrowing some of the chorus direction from G&S — such as the massed marching-on-the-spot during one number — but that wouldn’t be At All Nice.)
Having already sold his soul once this year as Tom Rakewell, Toby Spence was at it again. Although not exactly convincing as Old Faust, once morphed into handsome, dapper seducer Young Faust, he was excellent throughout. Although I’ve always enjoyed his singing in the past, I was delighted to hear how large and strong his voice was sounding, without losing any of its pleasant tone, and he certainly hit some belting top notes, which I am reliably informed include at least one Famous High C. Iain Paterson also had a fine, strong, upper register, and middle too, but unfortunately — in my personal and skewed opinion, of course — if you’re singing the Devil, it’s the low notes that count the most. *Juvenile humour warning* I like my bass(-bariton)es with big, rounded, dark-toned bottoms, and Paterson’s bottom was a bit thin and pale. Nevertheless, Vous qui faites l’endormie (or whatever it’s called in English) was particularly enjoyable. Melody Moore’s Margarita [sic] was mostly decent, but a lot of her arias had extensive flute and oboe in the accompaniment, and I kept finding my attention focusing on the pit rather than the stage. Discussing the performance afterwards, everybody seemed to like Benedict Nelson’s Valentin, but it didn’t quite do it for me. Avant de quitter ces lieux is an absolutely gorgeous aria, and it’s unlike me not to be moved by it, but there you go. Nobody plays cute androgynous youths like Anna Grevelius, and her charming, clear-toned elegance made me wish Siebel had a bit more to sing. The chorus had a couple of ropey moments regarding precision of timing, but produced a lovely warm, resonant sound in the hymn-like bits. The orchestral playing, while not quite setting me on fire, was of a consistently high standard, with highlights being the flute and piccolo (yeah, big surprise there), the cor anglais, and the cello and double bass sections.
I hope it is clear that this was, overall, a very enjoyable performance — although perhaps the enjoyment was not always of the form intended. Walpurgisnacht, for example, supposedly a mind-blowing orgy with the most beautiful women (and the best drugs) in history, resembled dishing-up time at the soup kitchen. Marguerite ascending the Stairway to Heaven and the 3-metre tall Grim-Reaper-on-wheels were also nice touches. I should like to end on a question which occurred to me during Act 4 (and allegedly occurred to Hector Berlioz on the opening night) – namely, how is it that Mephisto falls over wriggling like a bug under a magnifying glass when someone waves a little medallion and a couple of crossed swords at him near the start, but later wanders around a church, in fact singing a song under a huge neon cross, quite happily? Answers on a postcard, please.
Philip Glass’s best-known operatic works – the ‘Portrait Trilogy’ of Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten – focus on iconic figures driven by inner vision and conviction to change the world for the better. Einstein, Gandhi and Akhnaten – though overcoming strife and difficulty on the way – achieve their destinies, and their music, while containing periods of tension and aggression, is ultimately uplifting. The making of the representative for Planet 8 (from Doris Lessing’s novel), which followed these, showed a darker side, dealing as it does with the extinction of an entire human(-oid) species, but still ended in transfiguration and hope. At first glance, Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony appears to inhabit a very different kind of world, the central construct being a gruesome machine for the torture and execution of transgressing prisoners, the central character being an officer devoted to its maintenance and operation. However, from the grotesque context emerge not only themes of violence, degradation and obsession, but also of epiphany, transfiguration and redemption. The formal structure of the drama is also, clearly, something that was likely to appeal to the composer’s classicist sensibilities. Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto and stage directions follow Kafka’s original story closely, with the dialogue between the Officer and the Visitor (Explorer or Traveller in some translations) which makes up the majority of the text faithfully preserved, and the Visitor’s private thoughts becoming short soliloquies. The music, while consisting of recognisable Glass-isms from the start (minor triad-based oscillations, superimposition of simple and compound quaver rhythms, etc), keeps the main repetitive structures within the strings (reminiscent most of his Dracula quartet), allowing the voices freer and longer melodic lines than in much of the music mentioned above.
Glass describes In the Penal Colony, along with his other smaller-scale stage works (including Orphée, performed at the Linbury five years ago) as “pocket operas”, requiring only a few performers and “sets you could put in a couple of suitcases”. In director Michael McCarthy’s production with Music Theatre Wales, the four nameless characters (Visitor, Officer, Soldier and Condemned Man – of which only the first two are singing roles) are shrunk to three with the removal of the Soldier role, an excision which in fact makes very little difference. Also on stage and visible throughout, positioned behind the dramatic arena, are the six musicians – string quintet and conductor Michael Rafferty. Simon Banham’s set, while not quite fitting in a suitcase, is spare in the extreme, consisting of table, chair and ladder, plus a few small props. This may be disappointing for those hoping to see a full physical recreation of the magnificent flaying machine, but the aim is (as I understand it) to provoke the audience to exercise their own imaginations and picture the horrors so vividly described by the Officer. In Joanne Akalaitis’s 2001 New York production, the emphasis on the fictional nature of the events portrayed was enhanced by the addition of Kafka himself (or rather, an actor playing Kafka) scribbling in notebooks and reading journal fragments; not having been present for that performance I cannot make a fully informed judgment on the idea, but am, on the whole, glad that this was not the case here. Perhaps surprisingly, the visible string players did not ground one in the reality of sitting in a theatre, watching the telling of a story, but rather had something of a Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps feel, musicians imprisoned in a concentration camp, playing to the end.
Omar Ebrahim brought a hysterical, flashing-eyed zeal to the role of the Officer, first lovingly describing his machine and his idolised Old Commander who created it, declaiming with missionary fervour its power to bring enlightenment to criminals and the community, desperately begging the Visitor to help save it (and him), and, on realising his era was ending, seeking his own redemption – unsuccessfully – by offering himself as the machine’s final victim. Ebrahim’s secure, full-throated baritone rang out powerfully, but he also produced a gentle, lyrical tone in both upper and lower registers during certain more contemplative moments. Particularly interesting was the way he and the strings shifted between more vigorously rhythmic and more romantically legato versions of the same melodic figures. The machine, of course, is horrible, and its creator sadistic, but for a while we see/hear them via the Officer’s loving eye.
Michael Bennett had perhaps the more difficult character in which to convince, the sociologist Visitor being a fine example of Kafkaian moral ambiguity: first bored and disdainful, perpetually uncomfortable, and while he eventually takes a stand against the execution of the Condemned Man (although approving that of the Officer), seems to do so more in distaste and embarrassment than ethical imperative. In the early scenes, there were distinct balance issues between Bennett and the gorgeously rich and full-toned lower strings, with him appearing and disappearing in the ‘mix’ while singing, but this acoustic problem did not persist (and I gather was not a problem at all from other parts of the auditorium). At the start he was also a somewhat uneven in tone, but this may have been a function of the dynamics, as his sound became fuller, smoother and with a particularly pleasing purity in the higher-lying passages. The opera does not contain arias in the traditional sense, but the moments in which the Visitor reflects by himself – with growing intensity of feeling – were very fine. I often find it difficult to make out singers’ words, so the fact that both Bennett and Ebrahim were so clear in their enunciation was a definite bonus.
The Condemned Man, a dumb presence throughout, was inhabited with unnerving intensity by Gerald Tyler. Like an abused dog, he cringed when struck, beamed with thankfulness at being given a scrap of food, gazed at the two men in hopeless desperation to understand, and, grotesquely, sometimes copied the Officer’s gestures in a pathetic attempt to please.
After so much abstract or indirect portrayal, it was quite a shock, when the Officer finally sets the (invisible) machine upon himself, to suddenly have very visible blood spraying and splashing on his back. Although the denouement is certainly shocking, and intentionally so, I found this sudden leap into realism rather jarring. Also, while I liked Sound Intermedia’s threatening industrial hum in the background, the explicit grinding and dripping noises seemed somewhat bolted-on. However, these are small points. Overall, the production was visually effective and musically interesting throughout. While I have difficulty seeing it winning over new fans to Philip Glass or contemporary chamber opera, those familiar with the genre should definitely take advantage of the rare opportunity to hear this work.
Music Theatre Wales’s production of In the Penal Colony will be touring until 17 November.
[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]