Friday 30 August 2013

Strekoza i Muravej (Dragonfly and Ant) - an original voice

Madeleine Holmes as Strekoza (Dragonfly) in Brian Hosefros and Vadim Yurchenko's Strekoza i Muravej (Dragonfly and Ant)
Madeleine Holmes as Strekoza (Ant)
Strekoza i Muravej (Dragonfly and Ant) is a new opera by Brian Hosefros with a libretto by Vadim Yurchenko, based on Aesop's fable The Grasshopper and the Ant. The production was seen earlier this month at Tete a Tete: the Opera Festival and we caught it at the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, on 30 August 2013. Madeleine Holmes was Strekoza (Dragonfly) and Sheridan Edward Muravej (Ant) with Alistair Sutherland, Fiona Mackay and Christina Gill. The production was directed by Martyna Lyko and designed by Marianne Raye with Matthew Waldren conducting an eight-piece instrumental ensemble.

American born composer Brian Hosefros studied at Goldsmiths with Dmitri Smirnov and went on to study for a year at Moscow Conservatory. His website explains is interest in Russian culture and the fact that he studied the Russian language at St Petersburg State University - Smolney. Unfortunately this passion for Russian culture has tempted him to premiere a new opera sung in Russian by a non-Russian cast to a preponderantly Anglophone audience. I have a feeling that Vadim Yurchenko's libretto might have been rather interestingly poetic, though I don't speak Russian and was heavily dependent on the surtitles. I could not help feeling that the language was a barrier to preventing the new work being appreciated and that it would have had a more immediate impact if presented in the language of the audience.

The piece lasts around 45 minutes in three scenes. In the first we see Dragonfly (Madeleine Holmes) carousing with her friends Alistair Sutherland and Christina Gill. One friend (Alistair Sutherland) then slips off to visit his friend Ant (Sheridan Edward) an architect who lives nearby. Ant works hard, but admits to his friend that he loves Dragonfly. In the second scene the Banker (Fiona Mackay) threatens Dragonfly about her increasing debt, but Dragonfly does not care though her friends leave her when they learn of her poverty. The Banker then takes the paperwork to Ant for him to buy a bigger flat. In the final scene, Dragonfly comes home from carousing to discover that her flat has been repossessed and she is homeless. Ant moves in and discovers that he has taken over Dragonfly's flat and is devastated.

Those that know the original Aesop's fable will recognise that a few changes have been made and in the opera, the villain of the piece was the Banker who was present on the stage at all times, overseeing events.

Hosefros's music is tonally based and comprised of lyrical, melodic germs but assembled into something far more complex. I felt that the piece, particularly the writing for the instrumental ensemble, owed a lot to Shostakovich. The vocal lines were angular with wide leaps and awkward intervals. In terms of the overall sound, Hosefros was one of the most original voices that I have heard recently and his writing for the instrumental ensemble was brilliantly characterful. My problem was simply that for much of the time the vocal lines were far less interesting than the instrumental ensemble accompaniment. The singers were working very hard on some extremely tricky music which did not really yield rewards.

Most of the opera was written in a sort of high-octane continuous arioso which probably arose out of the way Hosefros chose to set the libretto conversationally. To a certain extent this robbed the piece of characterisation in the vocal lines. Madeleine Holmes's role started off at full pelt in an overwrought state and it was left to the ensemble to suggest her carefree lifestyle with delightful fragments of popular style melody. Sheridan Edward's was similarly at high emotional pitch from the start. Ironically, when the going got really tough in the final scene, Hosefros relaxed and gave us a profoundly beautiful and expressive scene for each of his principals, showing just what he really can do.

Writing for an instrumental ensemble of string quartet, flute, oboe, clarinet and bass clarinet (doubling clarinet), there were times when Hosefros's fascinating instrumental writing threatened to be too dense for the good of the general balance of the opera. Fiona Mackay as the Banker did not seem to quite be able to find her form and the role sounded a little underprojected and over balanced by the accompaniment. This was a shame as I think that Mackay's fundamental performance did capture the role's sardonic edge.

Shostakovich leavened his writing with a degree of sardonic wit, whereas Hosefros seems to have aimed for greater seriousness. I think a little more humour in the vocal writing and a thinning out of textures would work well.

Both Holmes and Edward were brilliant in their roles, both coping with tricky vocal writing and a high tessitura. Both came out giving superb performances with Holmes in particular giving the role a great deal of elan. Christina Gill and Alistair Sutherland seemed to be a bit at a loss as Dragonfly's friends and I felt that Martyna Lyko's direction of them could have been a bit sharper, though they too were admirable musically.

Matthew Waldren was ably in control, getting a fine performance from the instrumental ensemble and ensuring that the whole show ran without a hitch.

The surtitles were projected onto the floor in front of the performers, something which may have worked well at the Riverside Studios. But in the Arcola Theatre, with the majority of the audience at the sides of the playing area, most people had to strain to be able to see them, which was not ideal.

As I have said, I think that Hosefros has a fascinating voice and has great potential in opera. I hope that Strkoza i Muravej is a work in progress and that Hosefros is able to develop the piece and release its full potential.

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