Thursday 7 May 2015

Between Worlds – ENO at the Barbican tackle 9/11

Between Two Worlds - ENO - photo Hugo Glendinning
Between Two Worlds - ENO - photo Hugo Glendinning
Tansy Davies Between Two Worlds; Andrew Watts, Eric Greene, Clare Presland, Rhian Lois, Susan Bickley, dir; Deborah Warner, cond: Gerry Cornelius
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Apr 25 2015
Star rating: 4.0

A powerful work and a beautiful homage to this tragedy

Not an easy subject – but beautifully and tastefully done. The ENO at the Barbican performed Tansy Davies’ opera with libretto by Nick Drake to a packed house. Directed by Deborah Warner, conducted by Gerry Cornelius, this portrayal of the events of 9/11 in New York unfolds through the lives of imagined people who lost their lives trapped in the towers.

Tansy Davies (1973-) started out playing Vivaldi on recorder, then French horn at school. Building her own guitar she played and sang rock music, all before studying music at Colchester Institute. These early influences were tempered by the music of Boulez, Berio, Birtwistle and Stockhausen into something very personal.

Her directions to performers are often idiosyncratic, such as 'urban, muscular', 'seedy, low slung', 'stealthy' or 'solid, grinding' and her inspiration is often taken from the world around her – but one which has undergone some kind of treatment such as the crunching of ice in 'Salt box’, or the architecture of Zaha Hadid in 'Spiral House’ and 'Tilting’. You can read some her thought processes behind 9/11 in an interview in the Guardian.

The idea for the opera was based on the messages sent that fateful morning to and from people in the twin towers. While not specifically quoting, nor describing specific people, these messages served to spark an idea of normal human lives, with normal pettiness and grandeur, being stopped. A moment amongst the horror gave each of them a chance to speak to loved ones and it is this enlightenment that the opera focuses on. As Drake put it “Perhaps opera as a form is uniquely able to offer ways to express the horror and grief, but also to help us to discover something indispensable, and possibly transcendent, beyond that.”
Between Two Worlds - ENO - Rhian Lois, Philip Rhodes, Eric Greene, Clare Presland and William Morgan - photo Hugo Glendinning
Rhian Lois, Philip Rhodes, Eric Greene, Clare Presland, William Morgan
photo Hugo Glendinning
Davies’ music, Conducted by Gerry Cornelius, was the perfect choice for this opera. Almost indefinable and constantly shifting, she provided shading and emotional catchment. Musical motes contrasted with the linear fluidity of the Requiem Mass which interspersed the work - a historical thread that returned the listener to the solidity of loss. But powerfully dense moments, such as when people realised that a plane had hit the other tower, were so loud that the singers voices produced waves of beat in the theatre. The next moment the score reduced to a double bass drone before flexing with icy tremolos as people realised that they too were trapped.

The Shaman, Andrew Watts set the scene with his repeated, urgent sibilants which later resolve into an imitation of phone calls with an interrupted signal. His presence on the upper story of the industrially functional minimalist set by Michael Levine was a constant throughout. With phrases like “Words come – there is only darkness” he could be the voice of fate, the voice of God, or something more malevolent. His very physical presence so high on a fragile suspended platform was a grinding contrast, indicative of the whole work.

Eric Green performed the janitor with lyrical tunes and thoughts as the day began. Perhaps the most overlooked of the workers in a day to day sense it was he who took control when those considered more powerful behaved badly or fell apart.

The office workers and their partners all portrayed different types, a harassed mother, a lover, an enthusiastic new comer to the city, a worried wife and a husband who was ignoring his heart problem.

It would be hard to single out any particular person as being the star – each role was musically as important as the next and care had been taken that the stories were centre stage not whimsical flights of decorated cadenzas. However the interplay between the music and the set added to the drama. The backdrop was a mixture of texture from a curtain that could be raised and projections of books and papers or text messages, or windows and half seen views across the city. The crash and subsequent tremors were expertly done – the set gradually disintegrating until people literally fell from the gallery (on wires of course).

The idea of time recurred throughout. Before getting to work many of the people mentioned being in a rush or not having enough time and later the prophetic nature becomes apparent. The half words and sibilants, taken up by the chorus, at times became fragments of whispered prayer which expand into the requiem mass.

Out of the deep, here “Out of the depth I call to you oh Lord!”, became the moment when words and music were not enough and dancers portrayed the symbolic rising of one man’s soul as it was transferred to the heavens. Following poignant beating of breasts and ululation, the people left behind lit candles and drifted home.

A subdued ending to a powerful work and a beautiful homage to this tragedy. A work which shows humans to be just that, human, but finding a quiet dignity at a time of loss.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

Shaman Andrew Watts
Janitor Eric Greene
Younger Woman Rhian Lois
Realtor Clare Presland
Younger Man William Morgan
Older Man Phillip Rhodes
Mother Susan Bickley
Lover Sarah Champion
Babysitter Claire Egan
Wife Susan Young
Security Guard Ronald Samm
Firefighter 1 Philip Sheffield
Firefighter 2 Rodney Earl Clarke
Sister Niamh Kelly
Child Edward Green

Christian From, Rosana Ribeiro, Owen Ridley-Demonick, Devaraj Thimmaiah

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