My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 11: Berlioz (The Trojans)

Last month I wrote about the dress rehearsal for this in its staged form at Covent Garden. At the time, I was very taken with the visual aspect of the performance, so was glad of another chance to hear the music, now comfortably bedded-in with all concerned, without all the running around, and with the orchestra up on stage rather than hidden in the pit. Of course, there was no huge flaming horse, but given the ambient temperature of the Albert Hall in summer (a few degrees below the Mouth of Hell), this was probably for the best.

I particularly enjoyed Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandra, more than I did at the dress – now devoid of floor-rolling and nose-scraping, but with voice just as full of character and feeling, if not more so. I also appreciated Ji-Min Park’s Iopas more this time. The acoustic, of course, was not ideal – at least, in certain parts of the hall, and the smallest voices (only in the smallest of roles) were sometimes drowned; having said that, I wouldn’t have had the orchestra any quieter, as they were making a splendid noise. The extra brass were up in the gallery, from where the antiphony worked particularly well (and the bonus that they could blast the unsuspecting audience members sitting directly below and frighten the life out of them). It was good to be able to pay proper attention to the ROH woodwind section, whom I greatly admire. 1st flute Margaret Campbell was on particularly lovely form – although I’m not (yet?) a great fan of Berlioz’s flute writing – but it’s always a little bit of a disappointment not to see Philip Rowson in the piccolo chair (no insult intended to the chap who was). There were some very fine pieces for clarinet, seemingly excellently performed – I’m a bit out of love with the sound of clarinets at the moment and not being easily moved by them, so it’s difficult to judge, but given that, despite this, I still noticed it on several occasions, it must have been pretty good!

Regarding the work itself, I was more drawn to the music in Acts 1 and 2 – the ones set in Troy. In the Carthage acts, there were some very wonderful moments, but the longeurs seemed longer. At Covent Garden, even with the distraction of men running around in little leather pants, the ballet scenes dragged; here, without even that, the music – however brilliantly played – bored me silly. By halfway through Act 4 I was rolling my eyes, and if I had magic editing powers, I would have cut pretty much the entire act, apart from Narbal’s bit – or, if that made the opera a bit on the short side, have Brindley Sherratt sing the ancient Carthanginian version of the telephone directory for half an hour. That would have been  much better.

Still, damn fine opera. Glad to have discovered it, and might even get the DVD (which will have FF/skip capability…)

PROM 42: Prokofiev, Neuwirth, Bartók

As I write this, I have just realised that someone in a neighbouring flat is listening to some rather loud jazz, a man is shouting outside, probably at the car alarm that has just gone off, and there is a bee buzzing around my room. It’s not that I didn’t hear these noises until now, but I’ve been listening to some Olga Neuwirth, and had just assumed they were all samples forming part of the eclectically diverse sound collage that characterises much of her work. Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory, which received its UK premiere at this concert, is a more traditional concert work in the sense of being a viola concerto in all but name, without electronics, samples, video, spoken text, or any of the other multimedia elements Neuwirth has embraced; it is, however, a theatrical piece requiring astonishing range from viola soloist Lawrence Power, mutating from the stillness of tiny high harmonics to mournful low snatches of folky melody, frenzied bow-shredding sawing, and solo wails à la Jimi Hendrix. Within the orchestra, the well-equipped percussion section seemed to be having a great deal of fun, while during the movement  titled “… im Meer versank …” (sank to the bottom of the sea), several of the woodwind section appeared to be required to double on mouth organ – to superbly spooky effect. Although there are passing allusions to ‘songs’ from various composers and genres, the title refers specifically to Ulrich Bauer’s book Remnants of Song, an investigation of artists’ responses to traumatic events, and how these can encompass both a desperate seriousness and a mad playfulness’… [read more here]

PROM 47: Cage Centenary Celebration

Perhaps it’s something to do with the Olympics? While there are avid lifelong fans of each one of the less-frequently-televised events featured, there have also been legions of people who usually barely register an interest in sport glued to Greco-Roman wrestling, the incomprehensible varieties of bicycle race, and hours of athletes repeatedly flinging different objects across a field. Likewise, although the many ardent fans of John Cage were obviously out in force for this centenary celebration concert for the legendary iconoclast, also present were a significant number of newcomers both to the ‘genre’ (if it can be called such) and to the Proms themselves. And the majority of them stayed the distance, too – a not inconsiderable 3 1/2 hours (5 if one took the Cage-inspired ‘Music Walk’ beforehand), at least an hour of which involved seemingly-abstract soundscapes created from unpitched ‘found’ instruments such as paper, wires, an electric fan, an vast range of cacti (Branches), and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s instrument cases (the Marclay piece Baggage). Of course, the sound made by rustling paper is not very loud (unless it is a nearby audience member’s programme, in which case it is obviously infuriatingly so), so amplification was a major feature of the concert… [read more here]

PROM 63: Ligeti, Wagner, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel

I bloody love Ligeti. It reaches parts of me that other music doesn’t. I’ve been having some horrid #fibrospoon* stuff going on recently, with muscle fibres randomly knotting themselves up into snarling masses of tension and pain, but when those microtonal clusters of gossamer sound settled on me, the tightness eased, and the knots began to unravel themselves. I would say that I should try it more often, but even the most high-definition of recordings doesn’t work in the same way as being hit by the actual sound waves from the actual instruments. I’ve been lucky enough to hear maybe 3 live performances of Atmosphères in the last few years, and so after a couple of minutes of letting it do its soothing work, I decided to open my eyes and actually look at the musicians for a change. It did amuse me a little to see such a famously disciplined string section as the Berlin Phil with their bows all flying chaotically in different directions (of course they were – they were all playing different parts), and the double bass section getting all excited in the piccolo lead-up to the Vertical Asymptote Bit (if you don’t know the bit I mean, listen to the piece, and you will). The Albert Hall was rammed full of thousands of people being as quiet as they possibly could so as not to miss a note; this was very pleasing – I didn’t have to poke or scold anyone! It also worked extremely well to segue straight into the Lohengrin Overture; with the most careful of gear changes, the textures were matched perfectly and the first tonal chord emerged in a sudden manifestation of reverse entropy.

I didn’t know Sibelius 4 at all. I should have done, as it was on the programme for an orchestra repertoire course I was on the other year, but there were, that afternoon, as frequently happens, more flutes around than required, and I generously volunteered to take the afternoon off (in favour of a hot bath to soak a set of arms and back not used to 8 hours a day of playing). Anyway, when I turned up for dinner, the other flutes rounded on me, suggesting I’d only pretended to be reluctantly stepping down because I secretly knew that it was an awful symphony and wanted to get out of playing it. This was Very Unfair, both to me, and, it turns out, to Sibelius. It is not an awful symphony at all; it is rather lovely – although on the dark, stark side, and possibly a disappointment to anyone expecting Big Tunes like in No.5. There was one bit I hated, to be fair – anyone guess what? – yes, some incredibly obtrusive walloping glockenspiel, that had me fantasising about taking a machine gun and blowing the bastard thing to smithereens. I mean the instrument, of course, not the player, who was presumably only doing what the score and maestro required of him. Fortunately, from a Law n Order point of view, I had no access to firearms or the percussion area. Or, for that matter, to Jonathan Kelly, whom I do not know personally and so would have probably alarmed by giving a massive hug, just for playing such beautiful oboe solos. (Yes, I really like oboes. This is not news to anyone. Or is it? I was out the other night with old friends who were somehow surprised to discover that I really like curry and tennis, so who knows…)

In the second half there was something of a change of pace with Debussy and Ravel. If Sir Rattle thinks Jeux is a worthwhile piece of music, I’m perfectly happy to take his word for it and assume it’s me that’s missing something, but – meh. Whatevers. Doesn’t do it for me at all. Daphnis & Chloe, on the other hand, was absolutely brilliant. The woodwind were nice and prominent, as it should be, and from my Upper Choir seat I could hear more of the detail in their parts than I’d dared hope. Admittedly I did have a brief thought of how I’d like to be at a sectional rehearsal for the piece, so I could hear all the lovely bubbly ripply stuff just once, minimalist-style, without the distraction of the soppy string tunes. I also felt a litle ashamed of myself for having, when the orchestra first came on, noting the 1st flute only as Not Emmanuel. It was in fact Andreas Blau, and he played the the extremely demanding Ravel really damn well, so much so that at the end, Sir Rattle ran through the orchestra and gave him a big hug before anyone else. (I’ve sometimes been hugged by appreciative conductors after concerts, but that tends to be down the pub after they’ve had a beer or two, not on the actual stage. Maybe if I get to play D&C one day, and don’t bugger it up…) The final section of the piece had all the fire, fury and kick you could desire, and was not in the least diminished in excitement by its technical perfection (as at least one sniffy critic said). The audience would have liked an encore, but honestly, what would you follow an ending like that with? Let’s leave the table comfortably full after an imaginative and varied 5-course meal, not stuffed to ickiness by an extra helping of pudding.

* Don’t look it up. I made this word up.

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Photo from Dr Dee opera

Image © Richard Hubert Smith, borrowed from http://www.guardian.co.uk

During the introduction to Dr Dee, a series of English stereotypes parade along a balcony, including bowler-hatted banker, impressively-coiffed punk rocker, and Morris dancers. Oh no – was it going to be the worst kind of twee celebration of ‘Englishness’ dredged up in honour of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad? Fortunately, it was nothing of the kind. Structured in the form of an Elizabethan masque, the opera consists of a series of formalised tableaux based on incidents and themes from the life of Dr John Dee (probably best known as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I), and can be thought of in the tradition of the Portrait Opera, a visual and musical representation of one charismatic character – the closest ancestor perhaps being Satyagraha (Gandhi). Returning for a moment to the parade of Englishness, unless I somehow missed him, James Bond wasn’t in the team, which is a shame, as John Dee was actually the first spy to use the moniker 007. The scenes of Act 1 are based on key meetings with the people who influenced the giddy academic and social ascent of Dee’s early life: Tudor spymaster Walsingham, Elizabeth I, wife Jane, and self-proclaimed ‘skryer’ (or medium) and angel-whisperer Kelley. In Act 2, there is symmetry as these relationships all fall apart, and Dee descends again to ignominy and despair.

Damon Albarn’s collaborator for 2009’s Monkey: Journey to the East, Jamie Hewlett, was originally set to work on the visual side of Dr Dee, and I was disappointed to hear that he had pulled out – his designs for Monkey were absolutely stunning. However, this disappointment was misplaced, as the visual design elements (set designer Paul Atkinson and video designer Lysander Ashton)  here were superb. I have commented before on the brilliant use of light and projection for which ENO productions are becoming well-known, and lighting designer Paule Constable’s sterling work here was another example. While the sets were minimal and mostly monochrome, with little more than books, sheaves of paper, cloths and a few balloons (oh, and Albarn’s collective of musicians suspended in a familiar-looking wonky rectangular box, viewing all the action from above), the ingenious choreography of animated projections onto moving scenery turned this performance (directed by Rufus Norris) into something quite special. It’s something of a trope in TV dramas at the moment to superimpose scrolling symbols, diagrams, calculations and the like onto video, to represent the inner workings of a character’s thought processes (think Sherlock, for example), but I’m a sucker for multimodal visual representation of data, and it’s a trope I adore. How much, then, did I like seeing a live John Dee in the centre of the stage, pondering mathematics, code-breaking, navigation or astronomy, while calculations, Euclidean proofs, maps and cipher iterations radiated out from him to fill the whole proscenium? (What I could read of the maths and science even seemed to make actual sense, and the sly inclusion of a DNA molecule, electromagnetic fields and the London Tube map raised a few smiles.)

There was a dazzling variety in the styles of musicianship displayed on stage and in the pit, with a well-balanced mix of acoustic and amplified instruments and voices. Everything I heard gave the impression of intelligent, thoughtful musicians, fluent in multiple genres and comfortable blending their different aspects, admirably held together by conductor Stephen Higgins. Snatches of Coltrane-style riffs, for example, turn out to sound rather good on tenor recorder, with Ghanaian drums and the ENO’s string section accompanying. In this context the contrasting vocal characterisations of certain more traditionally operatic roles (e.g. Walsingham – gravitas-wielding baritone Steven Page and Kelley – charismatic countertenor Christopher Robson, both ENO regulars) with Dee’s incantatory Sprechstimme and Albarn’s own distinctive folk-pop narrative interludes simply added to the rich mix. Regarding the operatic voices, anyone singing with full vibrato on every note would have sounded completely out of place, but not a single singer did so (rare!), with Melanie Pappenheim (Elizabeth/Spirit) standing out particularly in her expressive phrasing and sensitive use of cold and warm tones. I’ve always found Albarn’s voice a pleasant one, and fortunately he made no ill-advised attempts to sing with historical pretensions, but, happily, did do that most un-rock’n’roll of things – sing in tune.

As is probably already clear, the music showed an extremely wide range of influences and stylistic elements, both historically and geographically – cross-genre in the very best sense of the term. It is not a new phenomenon for the songwriting members of successful pop or rock groups, once past the first flush of youth, to set their ambition to larger-scale, more complex works – operas, ballets, oratorios, film scores, or the good old concept album. Many of these are not very good, as the composers’ swollen heads contain insufficient respect for the unfamiliar genre or inclination for the necessary study to learn the craft; others are not very good due to an over-deference to the pop musician’s perception of the classical tradition that results merely in weak pastiche. (I don’t think I need to mention names.) This was neither; it was imaginative, intelligent, and clearly written by a composer who has taken his forays into ethnomusicology seriously (which reflects even better when one considers, for example, the cringe-making orientalisms shoehorned in by certain historical composing greats after encountering non-European music). I’ve admired Albarn’s songwriting for many years, particularly his knack of combining simple melodies with non-obvious chord changes to produce songs that sound both distinctive and instantly familiar. However, while his song interludes in Dr Dee were pleasant, it was the more experimental sections that I enjoyed the most. At the risk of sounding like a pontificating wine buff, along with the obvious drawings from Tudor, plainchant, Malian, English folk and indie traditions, I also got hints of John Coltrane, Kate Bush, Bulgarian chanting, and probably a hundred other things that have filtered through Albarn’s brain over the years. Some reviewers of the first run of this show, in Manchester earlier this year, complained about its work-in-progress state. Having not heard the earlier version, I would say that Act 1 was taut, fluent, and now polished to a shine, while Act 2 still retains some meandering lengthy passages where momentum is lost.

I dislike giving star ratings to performances, especially non-traditional ones, but it’s an Opera Britannia requirement to do so, and to compare it against other operas. My grade of 3 stars may seem stingy, given that I have said how very interesting I found the music and how inspired the visual design, but in a good opera performance I expect emotional engagement with the characters (probably involving tears at some point) and there to be times at which I am so engrossed in the scene that I forget where I am – and neither of these things happened. Of course, I felt disgust at the idea of Jane’s being coerced into sex with the creepy countertenor, and sadness at the thought of the vandalisation of England’s then-greatest scientific library; however, in the end, my connection to the events was an intellectual and sensory one, but not an emotional one. I may well still buy the album, though.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]

Image of Trojan horse

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

Not a review but an informal report from the dress rehearsal, only for those that don’t mind *SPOILERS*…

HORSEY HORSEY HORSEY HORSEY

MASSIVE KICKASS STEAMPUNK* HORSE. WITH FLAMES.

That thing on the right – it’s big. And it rocks. Literally, back and forth. And fire comes out of its actual nose!

Ok, got that out of my system now. In a calmer vein, Covent Garden’s new production of Les Troyens is a superb visual spectacle, with consistently high-quality singing, acting, and pit playing, which I recommend heartily, whether or not you are familiar with the piece. Good news: I believe there are plenty of returned tickets available, thanks to all the people who apparently booked a 5.5 hour opera purely based on the presence of Jonas Kaufman in the cast (now replaced by Brian Hymel). Bad news: seriously inflated prices, even in what are usually pretty cheap seats. Good news: It’ll be in cinemas then on DVD at some point.

Acts 1 + 2 were set in Troy, which was dark, metallic and industrial, and peopled by what looked to me like the cast of Faust or Les Mis. Anna Caterina Antonacci was an anguished and impassioned Cassandra, all flapping black sleeves, heaving bosom and floor-rolling. It was very unfortunate that nobody cared about her prophesies, but to be honest, giving them while crawling around scraping your nose along the floor is not likely to get one taken seriously. Especially if the people aren’t interested in thinking logically about why the Greeks might suddenly have fallen back, preferring to dance around doing handstands and singing Yay, Look at our Lovely Horse! But then, these are Trojans who find it cute when small children play with real swords and rifles…

For those audience members playing McVicar Bingo, an early tick for the random troupe of acrobats in the crowd.

For those hoping for big fight scenes and bloodshed, while the libretto contains a lot of references to battles and fighting, most of this takes place offstage (Trojans vs Greeks between Acts 1 and 2, Carthaginians/Trojans vs Numidians between Acts 3 and 4). The high on-stage body count comes from a lot of women stabbing themselves, Cassandra & co because they’re about to be enslaved, then Dido later when she gets ditched by Aeneas.

I don’t critique voices at a rehearsal, but I will say that I really enjoyed Eva-Maria Westbroek as Dido, showing off her wonderful versatility as both singer and actor, and particularly enjoyed her scene and duet with sister Anna (proper contralto Hanna Hipp). As this was a very short-notice opera trip, I hadn’t checked out the full cast in advance, and so having Brindley Sherratt turn up as Narbal was like unexpectedly finding some delicious dark chocolate in one’s bag. (However, while one bass aria, like one square of quality chocolate, is enjoyable, it just tends to leave me wanting more of the stuff, and unfortunately Narbal is not a whole-bar or even half-a-bar-of-chocolate bass role.) And the same goes for Robert Lloyd’s lovely cameo as King Priam.

I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I’d noticed anything amiss in the orchestra, but as it happens, I didn’t, at all. Admittedly I’m not familiar with the score, but I thought the heavyweight-size orchestra were on excellent form throughout. Pappano’s tempi and dynamics all seemed to work well, and the music had flow, whether in chamber ensembles or tutti. Berlioz exposes the upper woodwinds quite a bit, and their finely-poised ensemble was as good as I’ve heard, with the clarinet demonstrating particularly pleasing clarity of line. On this occasion I was also especially impressed by the lower brass, who hammered it home in style.

As I’ve bitched about in previous posts, I don’t believe in making noise while there is music being performed. I want to listen to every single note with as little disturbance as possible. Thus, I was unimpressed at the considerable portion of the audience who seem to have caught Met-disease and clapped the scenery in Act 3; I was, however, impressed by the scenery itself, which was, like Troy, multi-level and stage-filling, but sandy and North African-looking, full of people in gorgeous brightly-coloured clothes. The Carthaginians seemed a cheerful lot, and really fond of their Queen, who seemed to genuinely enjoy the company of her subjects and showed lots of appreciation for their hard work, via personal thanks, letting them hoist her around, and free booze.

Being a 5-act French opera, it wasn’t the greatest of surprises when the plot came to a sudden halt and Dido & Aeneas did the ancient equivalent of slobbing out on the sofa in front of the TV for pretty much the entire of Act 4, half-watching an athletic but not particularly inspired dance show. I was definitely ready for a change of channel by the time Dido called “Enough!” and shooed them off, but as for her suggested alternative, “Hey, poet, sing us one of your simple shepherd songs from the fields” – no, please don’t do that. (He did, though.) In the first interval, one of the McVicar-Bingo-players had commented on the surprising lack of shirtless dancing men in Troy. I, however, was quite confident that in Carthage there would be not just men dancing without shirts, but at some point that great staple of the London opera stage, a man randomly running around the stage in his pants. Two more ticks on the card, then. (However, what I didn’t spot was a Gay Subtext anywhere – did you?)

So some ghosts turned up, Aeneas legged it, and Dido prayed for him to fall ingloriously off his horse and be eaten by vultures, before stabbing herself on top of a pyre (Westbroek carrying it all off with great style). As the Carthaginians sang their last rousing chorus ‘We bloody hate that Aeneas – what a total twat, him and all his kind’, there was a final awesome surprise appearance on stage. It was a figure which one person I talked to reckoned was Hannibal while another opined it to be a reproduction of a famous Roman statue, but which I prefer to describe as a

MASSIVE STEAMPUNK CYBERMAN. ALSO WITH FLAMES.

YEAH.

* Apparently some of the ROH staff have a sweepstake on how many of the newspaper reviews of this use the term ‘steampunk’. I’m not press (this time) and definitely not newspaper, but thought I’d get in early and kick off the count anyway.

Photo of Antoine Silverman as Einstein

Image © Lucie Jansch, from http://www.barbican.org.uk

Two women sit at a desk, staring at us, motionless apart from their hands tracing quick rhythmic movements in the air. One is reciting poetry, the other interjecting a string of numbers, above a low-pitched organ hum. The woman reciting poetry is doing so in the pleasant but emotionally neutral tone of modern speech-synthesising software; the woman reciting numbers does so with humanity and expression in every one. Something is wrong: poetry woman starts to stutter – not a human stutter, but an android showing the first signs of malfunction. I don’t know what it means, but I’m gripped. And the performance proper hasn’t even begun yet.

Louise Jeffreys, Director of Programming at the Barbican, has commented that she had been waiting ten years to put on this work. Well, I’ve been waiting twenty to see it. I discovered Einstein on the Beach as an undergraduate, and immediately fell in love with it. I loved its emphasis on temporal structure, its almost-fractal patterns, its non-linear symbolism, and its utterly uncompromising nature – and all this just from the single (at the time) available audio recording. Being an undergraduate, the fact that most of my friends, and a large proportion of the music department, found it completely impenetrable and/or highly annoying could only add to the appeal. The first production was in 1976, and now, 36 years later, it has finally received its long-overdue UK premiere. Thank you to all concerned for making it happen!

Waiting expectantly outside the theatre, there was concern among us that it wouldn’t happen, as the start time was pushed back 15 minutes, then another 15. Seeing a new production, of course, one doesn’t know exactly what is missing or malfunctioning, but I gather there were various technical problems with aspects of the set and staging. These resulted in some odd gaps between scenes and an unscheduled interval after Act 1 – which, despite it going against the creators’ wishes, I didn’t mind, as it meant I didn’t have to miss a single note! (The whole thing is around five hours long, and there are no intervals, audience members being expected to quietly shuffle in and out as and when they require refreshment, etc.) On the subject of missing notes, there were just enough miniscule glitches – a finger slip here, an extra breath there, a tuning issue on flute (swiftly fixed, of course!) – to remind one that in contrast to today’s auditory world of hyper-produced sound and digitally-looped high-definition samples, here was pure live musicianship of astonishing virtuosity. As one would expect from a decades-long collaborator of Glass’s, conductor Michael Riesman’s control of the music was superb. Unfortunately he had no control over the lights on the music stands, and in the final scene (as far as I could tell) had to play for some time in the dark, while simultaneously yelling at the crew to sort it out.

With a lesser show, or lesser performers, these technical hitches could have significantly marred the performance. In this case, they were a small fly in a very large pot of ointment. In the Barbican’s Q&A event earlier in the week, Glass spoke of the musical demands this work makes on performers, and how some of the singers cast in the original production had considerable difficulty learning it, whereas today’s performers are expected to take such challenges within their stride. Indeed, contemporary groups like Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich) have set the bar very high, but the Einstein chorus fulfilled and exceeded expectations, demonstrated most clearly in their flawless delivery of the fiendishly fast additive rhythms of the a capella Knee Play 3. Bed, the section of music most closely resembling a traditional operatic aria, was sung by American mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn; she seemed somewhat hesitant at first – a little unsteady, or perhaps just feeling the effects of an extremely long evening – but nevertheless showing real understanding and feel for the music (something missing, for example, in several of the soloists in the ENO’s 2010 Satyagraha). On the other hand, the jazz-influenced Building, previously always one of my least favourite scenes, was immeasurably lifted by Andrew Sterman’s gloriously raspy, soaring tenor saxophone solo.

Another interesting comment from Glass during the Q&A was that in previous runs of the show, he had found that – unlike in operas with linear plots – the emotional high points were in different places on different nights. For me, on this occasion, while the Spaceship scene was undoubtedly the most intense assault on the senses (and wonderful it was, too, even with incomplete staging), the emotional centres of the work were Night Train, featuring a silent, glacially-measured Helga Davis, followed by Trial/Prison, where Kate Moran repeated a short text over and over, with slightly different – and increasingly unhinged – expression every time. The last few words of this banal fragment, seemingly innocuous, are quite chilling in their sudden invoked subtext of nuclear war (the link being with Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On The Beach). As the two Characters, Davis and Moran were masterpieces of non-narrative spoken and physical expression throughout, and violinist Antoine Silverman was believable as the scientist worrying about the implications of atomic physics while obsessively spiralling up and down scales. Trial One used the alternate (1984) speech – Charles Williams’ misogynist Old Judge viciously parodying the feminists who dared to demand equality for women, as opposed to the more benevolent sexism of the original text.

As someone familiar only with the music and libretto, seeing the work staged for the first time was an amazing experience. Having heard Wilson describe his preoccupation with structuring time and space through different kinds of light, the results of his creative vision and fine attention to detail were clear to see in a luminous palette and surreal edge that made me think of Dalí, particularly in Train One. The music occasionally contains sudden discrete changes of direction, but most progression is in almost imperceptible increments; these same structures applied throughout to the lighting, and to the movement of characters and objects. Particularly effective was the use of multiple concurrent speeds of movement between different individuals or groups; this also lead to brilliant visual diversions that made it possible suddenly to realise that while you were busy watching the Boy on Tower, or the Woman with Newspaper, a huge steam train had quietly crept onto stage. The one visual aspect which was significantly less engaging was the dance element. It is true I am no dance aficionado, but I do have an interest in the visual representation of numeric structures, and while the dancers’ steps and jumps corresponded neatly to micro changes in rhythm and harmony, I got no sense of the macro structure evident in all other aspects of the work.

Philip Glass’s style has been so frequently pastiched (or, shall we say, shamelessly ripped off?) for use with video, that – taken with the fact that he has been rather prolific in this field himself – it has become something of a little game, when watching TV science documentaries or psychological dramas, to bet on whether the score is Real or Fake Glass. The one thing that nobody has dared rip off, though, is the Einstein Chord Sequence – as immediately identifiable as the Tristan Chord. Flinging one back and forth between F minor and E major, courtesy of enharmonic pivot B♭♭ = A, the momentary emotional solidity of a IV – V – I cadence is repeatedly destroyed by the semitone shift up of the temporary tonic, creating a profoundly unsettling effect on the listener. The first occurrence (in the closing section of Train One), had such a hair-raising effect on me that it is only thanks to modern haircare products that I didn’t resemble an Einstein-style fright wig myself, and every single further occurrence was goosebump-inducing, including the eight-minute-long version at the end of Act 4.

Is it an opera? Not if you require your operas to have a coherent linear story, a title role who actually sings something, and more than one vocal aria. Otherwise, I don’t see why not. Robert Wilson has always described it as an opera, despite contentiously claiming in the (1985) film how he once “went to the opera – hated it!” (Interestingly, older Wilson, speaking earlier this week, was happy to reference Wagner on more than one occasion, in regard to temporal structuring in The Ring…)

Should you go? All the diehard Glass/Wilson fans dived for their tickets the minute booking opened last year, but at time of writing there are still some seats left for most performances. If you’re short of attention span, or have set ideas about how an opera should and should not be (see above), probably not. Otherwise, give it a try – it could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this seminal work. And it’s even acceptable to wander out of the auditorium for a drink and chat whenever you feel like a break.

At what point should you take your caffeine-and-comfort break? I’d suggest during Dance 1 or 2. Under no circumstances be away during Train One or Spaceship, and do also try to avoid missing any of the abstract but lovely Knee Plays.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]