Emily Howard's 12 minute opera, Zatopek! was commissioned by Second Movement as part of the PRS for Music Foundation's 20x12 project (twenty 12 minute pieces in a wide variety of styles). Zatopek!, to a libretto by playwright Selma Dimitrijevic, concerns Czech runner Emil Zatopek's Olympic Gold Medal victory in the 5000m race in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. By co-incidence a 5000m race takes just over 12 minutes to run, so Howard's opera lasted effectively the length of Zatopek's race. It was premiered in Liverpool last month and was given is London performances on 15 July at the Purcell Room as part of the South Bank Centre's New Music 20x12 weekend.
But, of course, a race is not necessarily dramatic; conductor Clark Rundell talked afterwards of being delighted at finding that Howard's score wasn't simply one long up-tempo acceleration. She and Dimitrijevic have achieved variety by including a series of flashbacks to Zatopek's past, his family dissuading him, meeting his future wife (Wendy Dawn Thompson) and training with her, his military service. This was a good idea but the amount of compression necessary and the fact that most of the hard working cast all played multiple roles meant that the dramaturgy was frankly confusing. Luckily the opera was performed twice, which much facilitated comprehension.
Another problem for Howard was that she was writing for singers, McMunn in particular, who would have to be doing some sort of physical activity. Her vocal lines were generally simple and rather uninteresting. Dimitrijevic's libretto was admirably sparse, so the textures came from all the accompaniment. There was an instrumental quintet (Ensemble 10/10 from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), consisting of violin, cello, trombone, clarinet and percussion. Then behind the stage there were members of the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir and members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir. They were hidden by a gauze which showed them in outline or half-light, and onto which images and animations were projected. The members of the youth choir sang from memory and gestured, acting as the crowd and such, behind them the members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir sang from music stands. Besides McMunn and Thompson, the other soloists were Rosalind Coad who played the commentator, Susanne Dymott, Peter Braithwate, Toby Girling and Kris Belligh.
Howard managed to get a surprising amount of changes to texture, timing and atmosphere into the piece. The set pieces, with the runners, the choirs and the commentator (soprano Rosalind Coad) were thrilling and very effective. I felt that some of the quieter moments sagged at times, perhaps because though they worked hard, composer and librettist couldn't quite inject enough human drama into the piece, except for the race itself.
I think I would have liked the dramatic ensemble which concluded the race, to be longer. The finale was a rather strange, and over-extended sequence with what I presume to be some sort of Czech anthem.
Danielle Urbas's production, with its video projections and imaginative staging of the running, was a little miracle. The combination of Paul Green's lighting and Freya Busby's costumes with the projections of Graham Clayton-Chance, Maciej Slomczynski and Joseph Harries was at times magical.
Afterwards, I have to confess that I did wonder how the piece would work if Howard dropped all of the solo singing and simply had speaking, did we need vocal soloists at all?
Before Zatopek! we caught Handsfree by Anna Meredith in the Clore Ballroom. This was performed by the National Youth Orchestra, without instruments. Wearing a variety of coloured t-shirts and sweat-shirts the result was visual, theatrical event as well. The musicians used mainly hand clapping and slapping parts of their body, with the addition of some hissing and singing. Meredith had co-ordinated the piece as a single slow arc which culminated as a stunning, poly-rhythmic conclusion. This looked and sounded amazing.
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Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012