Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Mesmerising: Simone Spagnolo's new philosophical, operatic mono-drama 'Faust, Alberta'

Simone Spagnolo: Faust, Alberta - Benjamin Bevan - Time Zone Theatre (Photo  Lidia Crisafulli)
Simone Spagnolo: Faust, Alberta - Benjamin Bevan - Time Zone Theatre (Photo  Lidia Crisafulli)
Simone Spagnolo Faust, Alberta; Benjamin Bevan, dir: Pamela Schermann, cond: Simone Spagnolo; Time Zone Theatre at the Bridewell Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 September 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A mesmerising performance from Benjamin Bevan illuminates this striking new philosophical monodrama which re-interprets the Faust-legend.

Simone Spagnolo: Faust, Alberta - Benjamin Bevan - Time Zone Theatre (Photo  Lidia Crisafulli)
Simone Spagnolo: Faust, Alberta - Benjamin Bevan -
Time Zone Theatre (Photo  Lidia Crisafulli)
The quest for a sense of self is at the heart of Simone Spagnolo and Giordano Trischitta's new opera Faust, Alberta which premiered on Monday 3 September 2018, at The Bridewell Theatre as part of Time Zone Theatre's Opera in the City Festival. A sixty-minute piece for baritone and ensemble, the work was directed by Pamela Schermann (artistic director of Time Zone Theatre) with designs by Cindy Lin and lighting by Petr Vocka and featured baritone Benjamin Bevan in the role of the Nameless Man. Simone Spagnolo conducted an instrumental ensemble consisting of Alda Dizdari (violin), James Greenfield (cello), Ross Thomas (clarinet), Ric Elsworth (percussion).

Composer Simone Spagnolo has written a significant number opera and music theatre works and this new piece displayed a confident approach to the tricky task of structuring an hour-long work for a solo singer, as well as creating a striking and remarkably evocative score with his instrumental quartet. Giordano Trischitta's libretto takes a deeply philosophical approach to re-interpreting the Faust story for our modern day. His hero/anti-hero is a man who has lost all sense of self, of memory and is being pursued by a nameless being/machine. Fragments of the past come to him, and he assembles his identity.

Despite the fact that little happened in dramatic terms, the remarkable thing about the new opera was how absorbing it was, the time passed quickly. As I have said, Spagnolo paced the piece excellently, with Benjamin Bevan alternating between moods, as well as articulating the feelings of the being/machine pursuing the man, all separated by instrumental interludes.

Bevan's performance was a real tour-de-force as he railed and wondered, gradually assembling his self before our eyes in a performance that was completely mesmerising.
The Bridewell Theatre is quite a small venue, so there was nowhere to hide and Bevan was fully present at all times, by turns touching and thrilling.

Spagnolo's music used a lot of repetition; whilst certainly not minimalist, he clearly enjoys creating repeating structures. And he used these to good effect, to create a series of moods which matched the different sections of the drama so that we always knew where we were with the music. Whilst Spagnolo's use of all the instruments was highly effective, such as using simple wind from the clarinet, white noise and high harmonics from the strings to evoke the eerie wastes of Alberta, it was the percussion part, brilliantly played by Ric Elsworth, which created the most effect. The percussionist was almost a separate character in the opera, and I felt that a more music-theatre approach to the staging might have worked well, incorporating Elsworth's performance into the dramatic presentation. As it was, our eye was often diverted by Elsworth's vivid gestures and striking sounds, in a percussion part which used a significant amount of untuned percussion to great aural effect.

In fact, there were times when I thought that Spagnolo seemed more interested in the instrumental writing than the vocal line and the recitative moments in the opera, of which there were quite a number, rarely went above vocal noodling so that the vocal line far less arresting than the accompaniment.

Quite what happened towards the end of the opera, I am not sure. Whilst Bevan's diction was excellent, the way that Giordano Trischitta's libretto was constructed from fragments meant that details of the man's past sometimes escaped me. It was clear that the man comes to realise that the being hunting him is within himself (I think), but quite what he was in the past I did not gather. The end, inevitably, seemed a welcoming of death.

Simone Spagnolo: Faust, Alberta - Benjamin Bevan - Time Zone Theatre (Photo  Lidia Crisafulli)
Simone Spagnolo: Faust, Alberta - Benjamin Bevan - Time Zone Theatre (Photo  Lidia Crisafulli)
Pamela Schermann's production was simple and effective, though there were times when I did wonder whether a more abstract, music theatre-based approach might have helped. But this was a confident debut for a complex and striking piece, with a stand-out performance from the mesmerising Benjamin Bevan in the title role.

Simone Spagnolo on disc:

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Certainly not boring: Rolando Villazón in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito on Deutsche Grammophon (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Sleeping Beauty awakes with a lively afternoon of Victorian & Edwardian light music at the BBC Proms  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Language, Catalan culture & audience engagement: I chat to mezzo Marta Fontanals Simmons - Interview
  • Lyrical & striking: Howard Goodall's Invictus: A Passion (★★★★) - CD review
  • A return to the Wonderful Town from Rattle's opening season with the London Symphony Orchestra (★★★★) - CD review
  • Sheer delight: Vivaldi's Concerti da Camera  (★★★★½) - CD review
  • A real discovery: Loder's English romantic opera Raymond and Agnes (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Bayreuth’s Die Walküre is pulled from the pack and given another airing conducted by Plácido Domingo (★★★★) - opera review
  • Popular tunes, segregation & pioneers: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - feature article
  • A different side to Julian Anderson revealed in this disc of choral music from Gonville & Caius (★★★★) - CD review
  •  In Sorrow's Footsteps: The Marian Consort in Gabriel Jackson, James MacMillan, Palestrina & Allegri (★★★★) - CD review
  • Grand rarity: Halevy's La reine de Chypre revealed by Palazzeto Bru Zane (★★★★) - CD review
  • The Grand Manner - Aprile Millo's London debut recital at the Cadogan Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Songs of Farewell - BBC Singers and Sakari Oramo at the Proms (★★★★★)  - concert review 
  • Home

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