Friday 27 April 2018

Striking double in Clapham: Shadwell Opera debuts a new work with powerful Janacek song-cycle

Angharad Lyddon, Sam Furness in Shadwell Opera's The Diary of One who Vanished
Angharad Lyddon, Sam Furness in Shadwell Opera's The Diary of One who Vanished
Edward Nesbit Antigone's Grief, Leos Janacek Diary of One who Vanished; Sam Furness, Angharad Lyddon, Anthony Flaum, Thomas Ang, dir: Jack Furness; Shadwell Opera at Omnibus Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 April 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Two staged song cycles, 100 years apart, in powerful, claustrophobic stagings

Edward Nesbit: Antigone's Grief - Anthony Flaum, Angharad Lyddon- Shadwell Opera
Edward Nesbit: Antigone's Grief - Anthony Flaum, Angharad Lyddon
Shadwell Opera brought a double bill of Edward Nesbit (born 1986) and Leos Janacek (1854-1928) to the music room at Omnibus Theatre in Clapham on Thursday 26 April 2018. Effectively a pair of staged song cycles, Nesbit's piece had been commissioned to use the same forces, mezzo-soprano, tenor, three female voices and piano, as the Janceck. Angharad Lyddon was Antigone and Anthony Flaum was Theseus in Nesbit's The Grief of Antigone, whilst Sam Furness and Angharad Lyddon were the soloists in Janacek's The Diary of One who Vanished (sung in Seamus Heaney's translation), with Thomas Ang (piano), and Isabelle Haile, Beth Graham & Sapphire Armitage as the female voices. Jack Furness directed.

Edward Nesbit's opera uses a short episode from the myth of Antigone as retold in Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus, after Oedipus' death Antigone, in her grief, wishes to visit her father's tomb. But it is a sacred place, and secret, and Theseus has promised Oedipus that he would keep it so. Furness's staging was simple, just Angharad Lyddon in black sitting centre-stage with Anthony Flaum off stage (but very visible from the audience) watching her on monitors which did not always work and kept flickering, to his annoyance (perhaps a little distracting for those on his side of the auditorium).

The performance was a real tour-de-force from Lyddon,

Edward Nesbit: Antigone's Grief - Angharad Lyddon- Shadwell Opera
Edward Nesbit: Antigone's Grief - Angharad Lyddon
effectively a long monologue on grief, going through various stages but always coming back to the idea of visiting her father's tomb and then dying herself, an aim never achieved. It is this deliberate lack of resolution which makes the idea striking, Lyddon and Flaum have a duet in which he explains why he cannot tell, and the piece ends with Lyddon alone again, forced into acceptance because it was her father's will.
It is a strange piece, and Nesbit has crafted music which is well-modulated and concentrated, this Antigone does not rail, she is considered and powerful. Nesbit's writing is tonal, yet complex and showed a confident handling of a difficult subject; despite Antigone's monomania, Nesbit brought a nice variety to the textures. Anthony Flaum made a sympathetic Theseus, fatherly in manner rather than in love with Antigone.

The Music Room at Omnibus was perhaps a little small for the piece with much of the audience very close to the singers and those of us at the side aware of both the piano and the 'off-stage voices' rather too much, so that some of Nesbit's textures did not tell as well as they might have done. I wanted more space around the music and felt that the black curtains hanging on the walls must have absorbed much. Lyddon's diction was not always crystal clear, you had to strain to catch words, and given the poor knowledge of Greek myth in contemporary society I think that some sort of background could have been provided, the drama of the episode did not quite speak for itself.

The intensity and intimacy of the venue was also an issue with Janacek's The Diary of One who Vanished, as you sometimes felt Sam Furness was holding back his voice, and he and the piano really needed more acoustical air about them. This performance had a claustrophobic intensity, but there were times when I wanted the performers to be able to really let rip. The role of the tenor in this cycle is one that I perpetually associate with the late Philip Langridge. Janacek based the cycle on poems read in the newspaper in 1916, about a young man who becomes obsessed with a gipsy and runs off with her. The piece was finished in 1920 and was always more than just a song cycle, Janacek had scenic directions and companies have been staging it ever since.

Janacek: The Diary of One who Vanished - Sam Furness - Shadwell Opera
Janacek: The Diary of One who Vanished - Sam Furness - Shadwell Opera
In Jack Furness's version, the young man was a teacher who becomes obsessed with one of his students, records a series of video diaries as he runs off with her and, by implication, gets her pregnant.. The projection of these, not quite in synch and rather grainy, rendered a disturbing distortion to the naturalism of Furness' performance. Then in the more lyrical, transcendent scenes, the video turns to images of the gipsy, of woods etc.

Furness gave a remarkable performance, singing with a wonderful concentration and vibrancy of tone, his style really seems to suit Janaceck (which is not necessarily true of all young lyric tenors). He nicely delineated the young man's growing obsession, though the more transcendent passages towards the end seemed a little earth-bound, in the context of the rather dry and intimate performance space this is perhaps understandable. It was a good idea to use an English version, and Seamus Heaney's makes a very fine choice (it is Heaney who wanted the title The Diary of One who Vanished rather than the more familiar 'Disappeared'). Furness's diction was not as clear as it could have been, as he seemed to concentrate on expressive lyrical tone rather than word. But this was a fine performance and one that I hope he develops.

Angharad Lyddon provided fine support as the object of the young man's desires, whilst Thomas Ang rendered Janacek's piano support elegantly.

This was a striking double bill, one which I think will bed in with further performances and develop in intensity, or perhaps all it needs is space for the music to bloom.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Passio: from Tallis & Purcell to Kevin Hartnett via Bach (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the parlour and into the recital room - Hubert Parry's English lyrics (★★★★)  -  CD review
  • Beethoven unbound and Schubert cycles, I chat to Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams - interview
  • Bernstein, Debussy, Parry, Smyth, Bridge, Boulanger, Owen - BBC Proms 2018 - preview
  • What an unalloyed joy! And if all this isn’t advert enough for some sensible funding I don’t know what is (★★★★) - concert review
  • Songs of Vain Glory: Sophie Bevan & Sebastian Wybrew (★★★★) - CD review
  • William Billings to contemporary Icelandic & Finnish music: Skylark's Seven Words on the Cross (★★★) - CD review
  • Missa Tulerunt Dominum Meum: Siglo de Oro (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Returning home: Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at Oper Leipzig (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Sacred and Profane: The Sixteen's 2018 Choral Pilgrimage opens at St Albans Cathedral (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Light Divine: a final glimpse of treble Aksel Rykkvin (★★★½) - CD review
  • David Hare's The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York's Theatre (★★★★)  - theatre review
  • Handel's Teseo at the London Handel Festival (★★★★) - opera review
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