Friday 19 June 2009


James MacMillan's Parthenogenesis has an interesting background. It came into being after MacMillan, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts and Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Wales) worked together on a Theology through the Arts programme. This led to the creation of Parthenogenesis in 2000. It was premiered at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge that year. I am unclear as to what Rowan Williams's involvement was as he does not appear in the work's credits; the libretto is by Michael Symmons Roberts.

Boosey and Hawkes website describes Parthenogenesis as a scena for soprano, baritone, actress and chamber ensemble. In an interview on the same web-site, Macmillan says that he can imagine the work being given in concert form, in a simple stylised staging or in a more fully staged context.

For their staging at the Linbury Theatre, the Royal Opera House opted for the latter option with a full staging by Katie Mitchell, with designs by Vicki Mortimer.

In the original piece, we hear the voice of Anna (spoken by an actress) as the child-to be. The work opens with an electronic heart beat. The summary on Boosey's web site suggests that we are hearing the voice of the unborn child. This has all changed in Mitchell's staging, where Anna is now an old dying woman. We simultaneously see her dying (centre stage) whilst either side of her we see her mother and Bruno, the fallen angel, in their meeting.

Mitchell's staging is extremely realistic and detailed. Anna (Charlotte Roach) is in the last throes of ovarian cancer and tended by a nurse (Sian Clifford). Either side of her bed is the flat of her mother, Kristel (Amy Freston). As Kristel dresses for an engagement, Bruno (Stephan Loges) appears and they proceed to have their awkward, embarrassed but passionate and necessary encounter.

I have nothing but praise for the passion and realism of Mitchell's staging and the performances of the singers and actresses. Unfortunately it all seemed a little redundant, unnecessary. Parthenogenesis is not a realistic piece and much of the drama is in the music, a detailed staging seemed to add nothing. I longed for a simpler, more stylised, expressionist version.

MacMillan's music is stunning and was beautifully performed with the composer conducting the Britten Sinfonia. There was little trace of the ensemble covering the voices as had been reported in the early reviews of the piece and balance seemed idea. Roberts libretto contains some complex ideas and whilst the singers diction was admirable I would love to have been able to look at a printed libretto or even perhaps, perish the though, have some surtitles.

Both Loges and Freston completely minimised the difficulty of Macmillan's music and created moments of extreme beauty. The piece has the admirable virtue of brevity, it lasts only 50 minutes - would that more composers could be as brief. Roberts and Macmillan manage to compress a great deal into the piece.

Afterwards the audience seemed disinclined to go home and the bar of the Linbury Theatre was buzzing with people (including the composer), all hopefully discussing what they had just seen.

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