New chamber operas, as well as rare one-act works from a hundred years ago, are a good basis for a new summer opera festival in the City, and it is to be hoped that this venture becomes a fixture in future years. Results will be uneven, but that is inevitable if you are prepared to take risks in producing opera, and there is no true opera without risk. This double bill of Even You Lights Cannot Hear Me and Nero Monologues is no exception.
The Opera in the City Festival concludes with two contemporary chamber operas of contrasting quality and character. Both works have highly literary origins. The first takes its bearings from Nina’s fantasy monologue about the fusion of time and space in The Seagull, and the second has at its heart a group of poems by Geoffrey Lehmann devoted to the private and public thoughts of the Emperor Nero as he confronts his demise.
The first piece is set for two singers, mezzo-soprano and high baritone, and piano. All are intriguingly combined in one entity in a way certainly new to this reviewer. The two singers sit back-to-back on a single stool: one plays the piano and sings and the other mouths the words, while throwing pebbles onto the floor at particular points in the music. As the music progresses the stool revolves and the roles are gradually reversed. Both are dressed in white and the stage is strewn with further misshapen rocks made of white plaster.
As you enter the woman is obsessively pouring sand from one goblet to another to mark the passage of time. The music, by Simone Spagnolo, is hieratic and incantatory accompanied by scales, arpeggios and strident octaves on the piano. The words are always audible, but opaque and mysterious and evocative in the same way that the original monologue is a striking outlier in the play itself.
The subject matter is a hard ask: just as in Milton’s vision of Heaven, it is tough to bring the ineffable to memorable dramatic and musical life. But if a combination of wholeness and nothingness can be depicted at all there is no reason to suppose that it would not sound like this etiolated and astringent sound-world where time is suspended too. This is a piece that definitely requires more than one hearing to reveal its various layers. One hopes that it will be taken up by other companies.
The performances by James Schouten and Kate Symonds-Joy are intense, ritualised and very effective. This piece only last half an hour, but it is highly demanding in what it requires of them in both singing and acting. It is an unsettling work that ends ambiguously and uneasily, typically in Chekhov, as the approach of a red-eyed devil is announced. It is far from clear that the abolition of the material world will bring about the triumph of pure spirit that the text proclaims. The final fade out from this world already leached of colour is uncomfortable and memorable.
The Nero Monologues is billed as ‘multi-form pastiche chamber opera’, but this self-conscious mash-up is ultimately a mess. The basic idea behind it has a lot of dramatic potential. Nero is a fascinating historical character: the conflict between the apparently insouciant politician and the aspirant artist and performer, the man of taste and the man of debauchery and inhumane torture has attracted many creative responses over the centuries. Unfortunately this latest attempt only comes into sharp focus and dramatic life when it quotes from some of those earlier examples.
Sarah Toth, who has also devised the work, plays Nero. She acts and sings with flair and it is a great achievement to have mastered so much text, whether sung or spoken. However, much of it is not clearly audible, and in such a self-consciously wordy work, this is a real problem. A lot of effort has gone into providing a detailed and sumptuous set and costumes as a backdrop to Nero’s narcissism, and director Joyce Jin produces some exquisite shapes and movement sequences from Toth and dancer Louis Ducasse, who accompanies Toth throughout as a balaclava-clad golem.
However, the textual fuzziness is matched by a kind of musical quilting that does not add up to more than the sum of its (often elegant) parts. Sections from Handel’s Agrippina and Monteverdi’s Poppaea come over with panache, but the interpolation of pieces by Kurtág and James Learn makes little sense in context. Despite the distinguished accompaniment from a string quartet and piano, the music fails to leave a lasting impression with much of it evoking the style of Samuel Barber in its textures and relationship to the voice.
Clearly a lot of effort and talent has gone into this work, and that must be fully acknowledged; but as it stands Nero Monologues remains an aesthetically self-indulgent piece, lacking focus and overall, as opposed to incidental, dramatic direction. If you are portraying self-indulgence it is dangerous to approach the subject with some of the same attributes.
New chamber operas, as well as rare one-act works from a hundred years ago, are a good basis for a new summer opera festival in the City, and it is to be hoped that this venture becomes a fixture in future years. Results will be uneven, but that is inevitable if you are prepared to take risks in producing opera, and there is no true opera without risk.
Even You Lights Cannot Hear Me 4 stars
Nero Monologues 2 stars