Friday 5 May 2017

Dubai-Rostov-New York: Scenes from contemporary opera

Elena Langer: Four Sisters - Sophie Levi, Sofia Troncoso, Laura Zigmantaite, Christopher Cull, Caroline Modiba (Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
Elena Langer: Four Sisters - Sophie Levi, Sofia Troncoso, Laura Zigmantaite, Christopher Cull, Caroline Modiba (Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
Errollyn Wallen, Joanna Marsh, Elena Langer Dubai-Rostov-New York: Scenes from Contemporary Opera; Young Artists of the National Opera Studio, director David Pountney; Wilton's Music Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 4 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Two works in progress and a UK premiere in this evening of exciting new opera with young performers

Elena Langer: Storm Cloud - Penelope Cousland (Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
Elena Langer: Storm Cloud - Penelope Cousland
(Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
In Dubai-Rostov-New York the Young Artists from the National Opera Studio (NOS) presented scenes from contemporary operas by Errollyn Wallen, Joanna Marsh and Elena Langer at Wilton's Music Hall on 4 May 2017. The evening was directed by David Pountney. Pountney had alsp provided the librettos for Wallen's Sabina and Marsh's My Beautiful  Camel; both of which are works in progress and we heard the first eight scenes from Sabina and the first act of My Beautiful Camel. Elena Langer's chamber opera Four Sisters was receiving its UK premiere, and we also heard Langer's The Storm Cloud. The operas were accompanied on two pianos, played by the four repetiteurs in the Young Artists, conducted by Mark Shanahan. Staged imaginatively on a miniscule budget, Laura Jane Stanfield was the costume designer with Charlie Morgan Jones as the lighting designer.

The Young Artists were sopranos, Elizabeth Karani, Sophie Levi, Caroline Modiba, Sofia Troncoso, mezzos, Penelope Cousland, Grace Durham, Laura Zigmantaite, tenors, Joseph Doody, Bechara Moufarrej, baritones Christopher Cull, Benjamin Lewis, bass David Ireland,  repetiteurs Frederick Brown, Iwan Teifon Davies, Killian Farrell, Edmund Whitehead. Sophie Levi was ill, and though she sang her role in My Beautiful Camel, she acted her roles in Sabina and Four Sisters whilst Elizabeth Karani sang from the side, though this barely impacted on the enjoyment of the performance.

Wallen's Sabina deals with the life of the historical figure Sabina Spielrein, Carl Jung's first patient, later his lover and inspiration, she worked with both Jung and Freud and became a psycho-analyst. Her theory linking psychoanalysis with the known destructive behaviour of cells only came to be accepted much later. Sabine conceived of her paper on 'productive catastrophe' as a child 'Siegfried' of her relationship with Jung. Later (in scenes we did not see) real destruction and catastrophe would be visited on Sabina (and her daughter Renata) via the Nazis.

This is a complex and fascinating story, which links art, science and psychoanalysis; David Pountney's libretto told the story via inter-cutting scenes travelling back and forth between Sabina's childhood, her life and work with Jung and Freud, and even a scientific presentation from Einstein.

Joanna Marsh: My Beautiful Camel - Joseph Doody as Deepak & his brother (Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
Joanna Marsh: My Beautiful Camel
Joseph Doody as Deepak & his brother
(Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
Grace Durham gave a powerful performance as Sabina with Sofia Troncoso as her younger self, and strong support from Benjamin Lewis and Joseph Doody in multiple roles (Lewis as Freud, her grandfather and Einstein, Doody as Jung and her father), plus Sophie Levi has her mother and Bechara Moufarrej as Siegfried.

Yet it was not always clear what was going on and the English sections of the polyglot libretto were not clear. With only piano accompaniment it was difficult to assess how much the orchestration of Wallen's eclectic score could contribute to the scene-setting. This is a work in progress and this strong performance gave us powerful hints of promise.

During the scene change, David Pountney rather helpfully took us through what happens in the remaining scenes of the opera, whetting our appetite for the whole piece.

Joanna Marsh is a Dubai-based British composer and My Beautiful Camel (also to a libretto by David Pountney) mines her experience there. Written speculatively, the work has not so far been performed complete and we heard the premiere of the first act. It deals with the rather farcical situation of a washed-up Russia entrepreneur Ivan (Benjamin Lewis) in Dubai, putting on Dubai Fashion Week with the dubious aid of his three assistants, the Joys (Sophie Levi, Caroline Modiba, Grace Durham) very much in girl group mode. They rope in as consultant, Deepak (Joseph Doody) who is assistant to Abdulla (David Ireland) who organised a local beauty competition (for camels!). But Deepak sees an opportunity for his brother's clothing factory in Bangalore. Add in a pair of Saudi Arabian vip's (Christopher Cull and David Ireland), two fashion designers (Elizabeth Karani and Laura Zigmantaite) and Fatima (Penelope Cousland), a government minister, and you get a potent mix. There were moments that perhaps needed tightening, some of the comedy seemed to labour somewhat. But the story and overall feeling was very appealing. The hard working cast brought out the real character of each role. Joseph Doody shone as the hyperactive (and very camp) Deepak, though the role taxed his lyric tenor. But we were very much hearing artists in progress and Doody's commitment shone through

Errollyn Wallen: Sabina - Sofia Troncoso, Bechara Moufarrej, Grace Durham (Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
Errollyn Wallen: Sabina - Sofia Troncoso, Bechara Moufarrej, Grace Durham
(Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
The real stand-out performance of the evening came after the interval when Penelope Cousland threw off Fatima's burkha and appeared as a Russian peasant woman in Elena Langer's The Storm Cloud (Tucha), a scene from her chamber opera Songs at the Well. A woman who has invoked a storm cloud to kill her useless husband, but it kills her lover instead. Cousland gave an astonishing and wonderfully intense, vibrant account of the piece, her gleaming, focused tone really nailing the work. She made bread during it, I will never view bread making in the same way again!

Elena Langer's Four Sisters (to a libretto by John Lloyd Davies) is a comedy which was commissioned by Bard College, New York in 2012. It deals with three sisters (Sophie Levi, Sofia Troncoso, Laura Zigmantaite) in the USA, daughter's of a recently deceased Russian expatriate. The piece is very much a nod to Chekhov (except here the sisters do NOT want to go to Moscow).

Errollyn Wallen: Sabina - Benjamin Lewis as Einstein (Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
Errollyn Wallen: Sabina - Benjamin Lewis as Einstein
(Photo © NOS/Nick Rutter 2017)
They await the reading of the father's will with lawyer (Christopher Cull), worrying who will get the money. In the end it all goes to the maid (Caroline Modiba) who turns out to be the fourth sister! A special mention should go to NOS's engagement and communication manager, Nicholas Boyd-Vaughan, who played the role of the corpse, getting to lie in a real coffin (kindly provided by Evershed Bros, Wandsworth).

Langer showed a striking gift for comedy and fun. Despite the complexity of the score we had calypsos, waltzes and more. Unfortunately the cast's diction was somewhat patchy, making the words difficult to follow. But Pountney's hyperactive production brought out the comic character of the piece with strongly characterised performances from the five singers.

As I have said, were were hearing voices which are in progress with each singer at a different point in their journey. But what impressed was the way each committed to the pieces and their roles, even hen taking multiple roles. Strong support was provided by the team of pianists (Frederick Brown, Iwa Teifon Davies, Killian Farrell and Edmund Whitehead), conducted with quiet confidence and sympathetic support by Mark Shanahan.

In his introductory note in the programme David Pountney commented that it is a thrilling time to be involved in opera in the UK, with large scale commissions from George Benjamin and Thomas Ades being surrounded by a lively welter of smaller scale new operas 'in pubs, basements, backrooms and bars'. This evening gave us a little taster of that excitement and energy.

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