Contemporary Opera in London: Three premieres, a revival and a new staging

Classical music feature

1 March 2008

Sir Harrison Birtwistle For Londoners who consider themselves committed to the cause of contemporary music, and for those interested in adventurous productions of fresh and innovative operatic works, the coming months should prove something of a boon.

In a quite astonishing display of serendipity, four of the capital's stages will simultaneously and successively play host to some of the more interesting and enjoyable operatic works of the past forty years.

Starting in mid-March and concluding in early May, this de facto mini-festival of contemporary opera will include stagings of works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle (Punch and Judy and The Minotaur), Olga Neuwirth (her stage adaptation of David Lynch's 1996 film Lost Highway) and Luigi Nono (Prometeo).

The productions are spread across three venues and four stages and they include one eagerly anticipated world premiere, two UK premieres and two separate productions of Punch and Judy. These events will provide all too infrequently indulged palettes with ample opportunity for gratification and pleasure.

Thomas Ades' The Tempest: credit: Alastair MuirThe uniqueness of this situation owes much to the general air of mystery that seems to surround contemporary notated music. The incorporation of words and theatrical spectacle in musical theatre and operatic compositions can mitigate such a reaction, but more often than not people seem entirely reluctant to embrace the new and the apparently strange in musical composition and performance. The opera houses, in the main, cannot be blamed for their reliance on standard repertoire (with notable exceptions of course, the Royal Opera's recent commercially successful revival of Thomas Adés' The Tempest being one). The marketplace demands it. But the situation needn't be so polarised, and with luck the glut of originality that these productions will present to London's fortunate few will help redress the balance. Only those with a closed heart could miss the consistency of invention and innovation that is on display in these works. Once the audience gets beyond any initial reservations they might have, then a whole world of sound and of knowledge will be opened up to them.

Olga Neuwirth, credit: Priska KettererOf the five productions, it is perhaps Olga Neuwirth's 2003 adaptation of Lost Highway that will be most alien in type to even the most seasoned of opera goers (though the Nono runs it close). Running for six shows between 4 and 11 April at the Young Vic Theatre, this new ENO and Young Vic co-production represents a bold step into an utterly fresh world of musical and theatrical gestures. In collaboration with the Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek, a fellow Austrian, Neuwirth has produced a multimedia musical theatre work of powerful obfuscation and intensity. The original's 135-minute span has been condensed into a taut 90 minutes, but the newer version has lost neither the unsettling power of ambiguity nor the dramatic tension of the source. If anything, Neuwirth has delivered a work that is even more confusing and evocative than Lynch's already wonderfully baffling film. She exploits the inherent capacity to play with conventional notions of time and space that the medium of musical theatre offers, by incorporating everything from live electronic transformations of the musicians and singers that often recall and distort specific patterns of sound and speech from earlier in the work, to a splayed chamber ensemble that surrounds the audience and thus subverts the normally factionalised performing space. The extensive use of video imagery in the work, along with the rich variety of post-spectral sound patterns and gestures constructed by the composer, mark this out as a piece of compelling vision and realisation. The consistent presence of narrative elisions and reliance on a sort of a monstrous sublime in both versions of Lost Highway means that precise dramatic meaning can often be impossible to determine. But the emotional tremors and tumults the audience feels in response to both works should be cherished in a world that too often presumes the audience wants to be dictated to.

Gwion Thomas as Punch in Music Theatre Wales' production of Punch and JudyThe three stagings of the two Birtwistle works on offer will perhaps attract the most attention. Starting with the Royal Opera House's revival of Music Theatre Wales' acclaimed production of Punch and Judy (at the Linbury Studio Theatre on 17, 19 and 20 March with pre-performance discussions on each day) and continuing with the world premiere of The Minotaur on 15 April on Covent Garden's main stage (running for five further performances until 3 May), this welcome influx of Birtwistle also includes another ENO and Young Vic co-production: Punch and Judy conducted by Edward Gardner. This staging runs for five performances between 19 and 27 April and will provide the more committed members of the audience with an intriguing opportunity to contrast the Linbury's established production with a newer offering. It also offers a second chance for people unable to attend the first run to see this coruscating and dreadful masterpiece in the flesh.

Forty years after its premiere, Punch and Judy retains all its vivid and appalling power. Like much of Birtwistle's music, it presents rhythmic and angular lines and static and jumbled-up block forms in the context of continuous development of the material. The music is quite easily followed, though: for instance, Birtwistle leavens the shrill solo vocal lines with three Passion Chorales (as ambiguous as the rest of the music, but sustained and hushed nevertheless). The constant recall and variation of motifs and gestures, and the strophic nature of some of the numbers, for example of Punch's Lullaby near the start, likewise invite the listener in. Moreover the violence of much of the music and of the drama is subverted, or rather made fantastical, both by the nature of the characters themselves and by the surreal extremity of their actions. The reassignment of the terrible actions of the protagonist to a human being, and not a puppet, means the audience is not able to distance itself from the action as it could at the traditional puppet show. The resulting state of perplexed horror that we might feel in response to the drama and the music of this work can be seen as a testament to its uncompromising and surviving vigour.

Sir John Tomlinson, who will star in the Royal Opera's new production of the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's The MinotaurLike Punch and Judy, and indeed to a more or lesser extent like all of his wonderful operatic works, Birtwistle's newest opera, The Minotaur, takes as its basis a powerful but schematic mythological framework. Written with the poet Stephen Pruslin (they earlier collaborated on Gawain), the new work consists of thirteen scenes spread over two-and-a-half hours and will feature Sir John Tomlinson (who excels in this type of repertoire) in the central eponymous role. It will be conducted by Antonio Pappano, directed by Stephen Langridge (son of Phillip, singing here as Heirus), and also stars Christine Rice (as Ariadne), Johan Reuter (as Theseus) and Andrew Watts (as the Snake Priestess). Though the music of The Minotaur is obviously a mystery at this point to all but the lucky few, it is still possible, through information the composer has offered in interviews and with respect to the basic outline of the myth, to forecast some of its important features. Like Birtwistle's earlier operas, the dramatic synopsis here will provide much opportunity for the type of circular form so common in his music. The presence of three ritual labyrinth sequences in the narrative (where first an innocent Athenian, then the rest of his group, and finally Theseus come face to face with the half-man half-beast) is the type of device almost endemic to Birtwistle's view of musical aesthetics. He believes music is about memory, and about experiencing an event from different perspectives and with different information available to us each time. In the myth each person enters the labyrinth at the same point, and they conclude their journey likewise at the same point, but their journey has necessarily been very different. These are the particular distinctions in which Birtwistle is interested.

Prior to The Minotaur he has dealt implicitly with a sort of labyrinthine schema in his musical works; in this new work, he finally makes this strategy explicit and defining. His preoccupation with myths can be seen in the same terms. They are constantly utilised as they allow Birtwistle to deal in universal themes and narratives that everyone is familiar with, which means he can then probe them from every angle and question what it is they represent in the contemporary world. It is precisely their familiarity that allows their expansion. The transparency of the original myths is a convenient starting point to investigate their protagonists' actual humanity and our position thereof. Birtwistle's reliance on myth is really a sign of his ethical concern to expose our changing attitudes and beliefs, and to query the nature of the myth as it has come down to us in the first place. These ideas, in combination with the promise of the continuation of the trend Birtwistle has recently pursued in his music towards a more consonant and natural style of vocal writing (see The Io Passion and the Neruda Madrigales), promise much for this new work. Look out also for the 'insight evening' that will be held around The Minotaur in the Royal Opera House's Clore Studio on 3 April (tickets cost £14, or £6 for students and those on the ROH's access list).

Luigi PrometeoIf the Neuwirth is the most mysterious of the new productions and the works by Birtwistle the ones most likely to garner public acclaim, then the production of Luigi Nono's Prometeo (premiered 1984) is by far the most eagerly anticipated amongst aficionados of contemporary music. It will be conducted by Diego Masson in the Royal Festival Hall on 9 and 10 of May (with a pre-concert discussion on both evenings at 6.15pm that is free to ticket holders) as the final concert in the Southbank Centre's fascinating festival based around Nono's music, Fragments of Venice. This monumental piece of musical theatre, not only one of the greatest compositions of the last century but also surely one of the greatest musical works ever written, will here receive its UK premiere. The fact that it has not recently been available on disc in the UK only adds to the production's allure. Whilst it would be impossible to give a reasonable and comprehensive account of Prometeo's many strengths and innovations in the limited space available in this article, some of its most interesting features can be noted. Musically the work continues Nono's late works' focus on silence, stillness and space. Like the Neuwirth (upon whom Nono's music was an important influence), musicians are distributed around the hall. The loudspeakers that transmit the electronic phantasmagorias emitting from Andre Richard, the person responsible for the work's sound design, are likewise distributed. There are no actors in Prometeo, nor are there scenes, at least in any traditional sense. The traditional operatic spectacle is banished in the work in favour of an all-involving discourse of surround sound and image (some tickets are even being offered at a discounted rate for the seats that fall outside the boundaries of the sound/performance space). It shares this trait with much of his other music where the spatialisation of the performing space is used often to great effect (see for example his La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura, where the solo violinist walks to five different music stand throughout the hall and plays from the pages placed there). This expansion of the classical dramatic scheme and hierarchy means that the operatic status of Prometeo may be called into question, but such debates are best ignored. The classification of the work, when set aside its sheer theatrical power, pales into insignificance. The narrative function of the work, like the spatial element, is of a singular character.

Diego Masson, who will conduct Nono's Prometeo at the Royal Festival HallThough Prometeo incorporates a large corpus of text based around the story of Prometheus, that text is heard often only in fragments, or it is distorted and delayed by the electronics, or it is heard simultaneously with other portions of text. In the most common derivation, the articulation of the text is drawn out to such an extent that the words become meaningless successions of vowel sounds. Nono believed the text should not be heard but felt through the experience of the music (he even writes out portions of the text on the instrumental scores as would normally be written more conventional expressive directions). This liberation of music from the denotative sign leads to a fresh experience of sound as a pure phenomenon. And Nono is a master at constructing a beguiling sound image. The long, almost immobile lines of the singers are hypnotic in effect, especially when the parallel movement between two lines that is common throughout the work focuses in on a gradual contraction or expansion of the simple interval they are outlining. Nono's gradual expansion of his serial method, seen in these simple vocal gestures, can be adjudged to have borne full and unfettered fruit in his Prometeo. His innovations in musical theatre aesthetics likewise find their apotheosis in this unique and startling work.

For anyone interested in the contemporary world and how the social problems of the day get filtered into and contemplated by the mind of the artist or the philosopher (Nono deals in this work with the imminent death of communism at the hands of the ideal of Western liberal democracy), I strongly recommend these five productions. They all in their own way reflect different strands of thought and of aesthetics in the modern world. And beyond that, they offer compelling and stimulating experiences of pure sound, and of drama, that are the match for anything musical history has to offer.

By Stephen Graham


See also our preview of the Barbican's Great Performers 2008-09 season here.

And read our preview of the London Philharmonic's 2008-09 season here.

Also see details of Welsh National Opera's 2008-09 season here.