Tansy Davies: Between Worlds (world premiere)

This co-commission from ENO and the Barbican seems,
alas, founded upon a bad idea. One can make an opera out of almost anything, of
course, but that does not mean that some subject matter is no more or no less
suitable than any other. The problem with the highly fashionable — at least
in some quarters — tendency to base operas upon recent(-ish) news stories is
that, all too easily, their ‘documentary’ as opposed to artistic quality
becomes the issue at stake. In the case of the bombing of the Twin Towers,
there is also the question of attempting to put oneself beyond criticism, or at
least of appearing to do so, by dealing with such portentous subject matter.
Or, in the opposite case, of creating a controversy, when someone objects to
the choice of subject matter.

But the problem lies more with the specific choices of Nick Drake’s
libretto: which, frankly, is dire. What are we told? That some people, with
differing personalities and differing personal and financial circumstances,
went to work one day, not knowing what was to happen, and never came back. Not
much more than that, really. As a friend said to me after the event, there is a
reason why disaster films tend not to deal with actual disasters, but will have
at least someone surviving. What is an undeniable tragedy in ‘real life’
does not necessarily transfer so well to tragedy on stage. Moreover, the
banality of the words — which will doubtless be justified as ‘realistic’
— irritates and, worse than that, bores. There is a limit to how many times
anyone wants to hear ‘What the fuck?’ repeated on stage. Snatches of
‘real-life’, if fictional, conversation, are heard from the chorus as well
as the ‘characters’, presumably a nod to the celebrated telephone messages
left by victims. What on earth the ‘Shaman’ character is doing is
anyone’s guess. I assume he in some sense signifies Fate; to start with, I
wondered whether we might have a guest appearance from Stockhausen; alas not.
Anyway, he spouts gibberish, which at least offers verbal and indeed musical
variety, which to some extent is taken up by other members of the cast,
especially the Janitor. Then he disappears. That sits very oddly with the
work’s ‘realism’, and not productively so. Might it not have been more
interesting to deal with the creators of what Stockhausen so memorably called
Lucifer’s greatest work of art? Or, better still, to create a more finely
balanced, fictional story?

Tansy Davies’s score is better than that. I suppose one would describe it
as ‘eclectic’. There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, as Hans Werner
Henze put it, writing about The Bassarids, ‘with Goethe under my
pillow, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the possibility of being
accused of eclecticism. Goethe’s definition ran: “An eclectic … is anyone
who, from that which surrounds him, takes what corresponds to his nature.” If
you wanted to do so, you could count Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, and
Stravinsky as eclectics.’ What I missed, though, was any real sense of
musical characterisation, or indeed of sympathy for voices. The score
is atmospheric, and has a nice enough line in impending doom, ‘darkening’
in almost traditional ‘operatic’ style, but it tends more towards
background, like a good film score, rather than participating in and creating
the drama. That, at any rate, was my impression from a first hearing. Rightly
or wrongly, music seemed subordinated not so much to ‘drama’, as to subject

Deborah Warner’s production plays things pretty straight. What to do with
the actual moments of impact? Stylisation is not a bad solution, so we see
pieces of paper fall from the ceiling. Having a Mother sit at the front of the
stage, looking ‘soulfully’ into the distance, at the close, risks bathos;
but perhaps that is in the libretto. It does no particular harm. Insofar as I
could discern, the ENO Orchestra and Chorus were very well prepared, incisively
conducted by Gerry Cornelius. The cast is called upon more obviously to act
than to display great vocal prowess, but its members all did what was asked of
them. Andrew Watts’s counter-tenor Shaman stood out, but then, as mentioned,
the role puzzling fizzled out. Susan Bickley’s talents seemed wasted, but as
usual, impressed.

So then, I was happy to have gone, but cannot imagine rushing back.
Apologists for new (alleged) conceptions of opera would ask where the problem
was with that. Must everything, or indeed anything today, be a masterpiece?
Well, clearly not everything will be, but I am not sure that I am willing to
ditch the work concept or even the ‘masterpiece concept’ so emphatically,
quite yet. Besides, this is clearly intended as a ‘work’, not as a
‘happening’, or some such alternative. ENO deserves credit for supporting
and performing the work. Perhaps next time around, it will be luckier with
respect to the outcome; this was, after all, the company that commissioned
The Mask of Orpheus.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

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. Director: Deborah Warner; Set designs: Michael Levine; Costumes:
Brigitte Reiffenstuel; Lighting: Jean Kalman; Video: Tal Yarden; Choreography:
Kim Brandstrup. Orchestra of the English National Opera/ Chorus of the English
National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Higgins)/Gerry Cornelius (conductor).
Barbican Theatre, London, Saturday 11 April 2015.

image_description=Tansy Davies [Photo by Rikard ÷sterlund]
product_title=Tansy Davies: Between Worlds (world premiere)
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Tansy Davies [Photo by Rikard ÷sterlund]