Sunday, 19 February 2012

Exposure, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera

'Snapshots of New Opera'. Hmm. Well, 'snapshots' meaning anything from a glimpse of an opera already slated for production to new sketches. It wasn't always easy to discern the purpose of the evening which was part opportunity to hear new work, part advert for future performances and even part sales pitch, with at least invitations for financial support.

In the end it was difficult to make the case for the evening being intended as entertainment. Even the standard opera scenes performance one might be familiar with from the conservatoires are intended as potted dramas, vaudevilles in size perhaps but nonetheless coherent and involving.

The numbers simply didn't lend themselves to this end for Exposure though. Orchestrations (such as there might have been any) were slimmed down to the piano reduction plus percussion; an additional violin (for the opening fragment) or staging-integral woodwind were the only exceptions.

We were also told, with peculiar pride, that the production team had only three days in which to prepare the show. Clearly this information was designed to turn an embarrassing lack of resources into a virtue. Of course, one of the other purposes of a comparable conservatoire opera scenes evening is that it is a showcase for the performers, meaning the singers. With only three days to prepare, irrespective of how long the singers had had their scores, it was never going to be about showcasing their talents, but relying on them - and their professionalism - as a vessel for the works.

With these significant qualifications laid out then, what was on offer? I enjoyed Michael Zev Gordon's Icarus, (right, click here for information about the 2011 Tete a Tete work-in-progress production) music somewhere in the orbit of both John Adams and Jonathan Dove with its economy and rhythmic drive, using small units of notes as well as the sudden shifts between meter. Gavin Wayte's The Neighbour had a good sense of dramatic temperament and Tom Armstrong's Do The Right Thing wasn't afraid of rhythmic complexity to assert shifting moral temperaments. I had particularly looked forward to celebrated tenor Tom Randle's excerpt, from his opera The Sculptor. Although denied any dramatic or narrative context (a natural pitfall of the evening's exercise,  reasonably requiring forebearance and imagination from the audience) the chief appeal of this was in the economy and deliberately limited palette of the music's colour. I would have liked to have heard an act. Conversely, Cafeteria was a self-contained sketch by Helen Porter (to Eleanor Knight's text, the only one of the evening that made its own impression on me) which, with its perky, briskly arrived-at point and clear ensemble writing was the perfect way to finish the first half.

In the second, a cross section of Samuel Hogarth's David And Goliath was nicely paced with a fine ear for the temperament of the drama not only in the differing music between characters but also the percussive, edgy music that was shown up so well at the piano. The evening closed with an extract from The Trial Of Jean Rhys, the snippet best suited to the cabaret feel of the staging of the evening's show (set in 1920s Montparnasse).

Inamongst these extracts peformed by the corps of ROH2, there were two clearly better-rehearsed productions. A Fetus [sic] In America features the mature voice of a formerly aborted foetus to mount a surreal, time-and-space suspended perspective narrative. Luke Styles' music is a Berio-like tumble of idiom and works hand-in-glove with Peter Cant's text to pinball through a witty repartee. The mezzo-soprano Jessica Walker (last seen here in the superb OperaUpClose Coronation Of Poppea) performed the monologue of the scene in the style of Annie Lennox doing burlesque and the tableau benefitted from properly prepared lighting, as well as the considerable charisma of a better-than-the-rest prepared Walker. Here's the extract in performance at the 2011 Tete a Tete Festival, again with Walker:

Preparation was also the advantage of the interpolated extract in the second half, a scene from Stephen McNeff's take on Giles Foden's The Last King Of Scotland. A well-drilled group of students from Trinity Laban provided the support for a similarly charismatic turn from Rodney Clarke as Idi Amin, maniacally dismissing food in a fit of pique before demanding it returned, as the naive doctor Nicholas (Michael McLaughlin) shows him basic physical care. McNeff's music has the fresh bucolic tonality familiar from Lennox Berkeley but also the rhythmic DNA of jazz giving the music an attractive, suave character, rather like the dictator himself.

Respect is due the entire performing corps for undertaking the three-night run with insufficient preparation. It seems pointless to talk about individual performers, with one exception. The evening was musically directed from the piano by Lindy Tennent-Brown in an exemplary feat of idiom hopping, highly accurate playing and conducting, minor crisis management and, frankly, stamina.

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