Wednesday 8 August 2018

An uneasy mix: politics, spirituality and melody in Keith Burstein's new opera

The Prometheus Revolution
Keith Burstein The Prometheus Revolution; Fulham Opera, dir: Sophie Gilpin, m.dir: Ben Woodward; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 August 2018 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A new opera which combines politics, new-age spirituality and an unashamedly tonal score.

A three-act opera with twelve named roles, a plot which mixes contemporary politics with new-age spirituality and a lyrical, tonal score, this new contemporary opera The Prometheus Revolution by Keith Burstein was the first of two contributions by Fulham Opera, artistic director Ben Woodward, to this year's Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre on Tuesday 7 August 2018. (The company's second opera of the festival is more traditional, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor).

Burstein's opera was performed in the smaller, more intimate of the Arcola's studios with a production directed by Sophie Gilpin with designs by Sunny Smith and a cast which included Alex Haigh, Lucie Louvrier, Caroline Carragher, Robert Garland, Luci Briginshaw, James Schouten, James Bowers, Gerard Delrez, Olivia Barry, Nick Dwyer, Ian Wilson-Pope and Christie Cook. Musical director Ben Woodward accompanied on the piano.

Burstein's plot (the libretto was by the composer) took a grass roots political movement like the Occupy Movement, here called the Prometheus Revolution, and asked the question what if it succeeded. Support from billionaire Peter Rowlands (Alex Haigh) allows the movement to succeed, but comes at a price. Rowlands has history with the movement's founders and all is not well. On the political front, the success of the movement leads to the suicide of the Prime Minister, James Hanson (Ian Wilson-Pope) and the eventual dictatorship of his deputy, Paul Zapruder (Nick Dwyer), though the intervention of the head of the army (Gerard Delrez) allows the movement to succeed.

Woven into this is Rowlands' ex-girlfriend, Iris (Luci Briginshaw), now mute who only sings and has attracted a spiritual following, when she speaks again it will be to fortell the future. This happens in dramatic circumstances and ultimately ushers in a new age of peace.

This mix of politics and spirituality rather reminded me, in a distant way, of Michael Tippett's The Ice Break, but as a librettist Keith Burstein lacks Tippett's gift for concision and for aphorism.
Though The Prometheus Revolution lasted under two hours (including the interval) Burstein crammed in rather too much action, too many characters and too many short scenes. I wanted to see more development of the key characters with some characters eliminated, whilst an examination of how and why the movement succeed was badly needed. As it is, though the piece deals with contemporary politics it is firmly in the land of fantasy.

Burstein's music is unashamedly tonal and after the complex piano prelude we were plunged into a torrent of melody. Just as the plot began in media res, Burstein's score is similarly highly charged and passionate from the outset. His writing is a stream of melody; as a composer, I also write tunes in my operas but mine are usually hard won and I cannot help but admire Burstein's sheer fertility. But he did not seem to know where to stop. After the opening passionate duet for Rowlands (Alex Haigh) and Pandora (Lucie Louvrier), I wanted a moment of pause and some secco recitative to get us up to speed on the plot, after all this is the classic way of constructing opera. But Burstein ploughed on with more melody, and more.

The problem with writing traditional melody and harmony is that it comes with emotional and dramatic baggage, if you use a chord sequence which evokes a familiar moment in a traditional opera then the audience associate the famliar emotions with that sequence. Burstein used familiar tropes in unfamiliar ways, and too often the music felt dissociated from the drama. For me, the melodies and the harmonies did not always match the emotions being portrayed.

This was a studio performance of a large scale opera, it really needs a bigger space, a large instrumental ensemble and, in some cases, more mature voices. A couple of the soloists were clearly at the limits of what their young voices could do. That an opera is tuneful and lyrical does not necessarily mean that it is easy and untaxing to sing, and some of the roles need strong dramatic singers. The confined space also meant that it was rather a noisy affair at times, in richly passionate music you can hardly expect singers to shut up, and I longed for a larger auditorium.

On the piano Ben Woodward coped manfully with the fistfuls of notes, and created a creditable simalcrum of the accompaniment but it sounded very much like a piano reduction of a full score, rather than a piano part.

Sophie Gilpin's production was simple yet effective. She had a lot of characters to delineate and quite a few different locations. All was done with skill, yet I did wonder whether for a first outing a concert might have been better, allowing the singers to concentrate more on the unfamiliar music, the audience to use their imaginations and perhaps giving them the ability to follow with a libretto. As it was, we struggled to catch the words, and got only a general feel of the plot.

I have to commend the cast, all of whom gave sterling performances. Each singer had their own moment or moments, and there were a lot of notes. Everyone really committed themselves to the performance and to the piece, and their support for new opera is admirable.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Jonas Kaufmann as Wagner’s Parsifal at the Munich Opera Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Piecing together the new opera Dear Marie Stopes  - guest post from composer Alex Mills
  • The classical saxophone: Huw Wiggin's Reflections (★★★★★) - CD review
  • New production of Shakespeare's Othello at the Globe Theatre - Theatre review
  • You can’t resist a splendid piece: Donizetti's Rita & Ravel's L'heure Espagnole at Grimeborn Festival - Opera review
  • Gripping psychodrama with a nod to Hitchcock: Barber's Vanessa at Glyndebourne (★★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tiroler Festpiele Erl (Austria) (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Introducing the art of bel canto - the London Bel Canto Festival  - Interview
  • Prom 26: Late night Baroque queens at the Royal Albert Hall  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Into the mind of Bloody Mary: Martin Bussey & Di Sherlock's Mary's Hand (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Suppleness and elegance: a new Les Pêcheurs de Perles from an all-French team (★★★★★) - CD review
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