Britten's Phaedra was made to be moved to. Maze-like, recurring patterns, mirror images. The orchestration is bizarre. It's scored for percussion and harpsichord, with small string ensemble and soprano, Its textures are stark and stylized, with the directness of Greek or Roman art: no fancy background decoration. Percussion and harpsichord? The timpani and metallic instruments add a raw edge, militaristic perhaps, or maybe ceremonial. Phaedra, after all, is a queen and she takes her regal responsibilities seriously. Britten's cycle feels like state treason, (which of course it is). Against the grim percussion, the harpsichord struggles, the thinness of its tone perfectly portrays Phaedra's vulnerability. Harpsichords are percussion instruments too, and Britten makes no pretence at writing anything harmonic or baroque.
Britten's nine songs evolve like tableaux, each a stage in Phaedra's journey from her wedding day to her death. Phaedra's feelings are not love, but a curse. "I faced my flaming executioner Aphrodite, my mother's murderer". Phaedra's mother was Pasiphaë, who slept with the bull and died giving birth to The Minotaur. Kinky. Britten sets the vocal part in a combination of long, soaring arcs and short staccato interspersed with tense silence. "I could not breath or speak", she sings , describing the compulsion that overwhelms her. She rasps, "Love. Love. Love" heavy and hollow like ostinato, against wildly turbulent, twisting discords, marked by high, screaming strings. "Alone" she suddenly shouts : no adornment, no softening. Indeed, by this stage words are bursting out almost randomly, without any attempt to civilize feelings into conventional form.
"Death to the unhappy is no catastrophe" she intones. At last the strings rise in a sort of elegaic anthem, almost recognizably melodic, but quickly surge into a whirring, rushing torrent. "Chills already dark along by boiling veins" Phaedra faces death heroically. In the end, a solo cello plays a sweet, lyrical passage : Phaedra is no more.
The Britten Sinfonia were shrouded in darkness: an atmospheric touch. The music seemed to materialize out of nowhere, like the mysterious workings of Fate that have cursed Phaedra. The dancers of the Richard Alston Dance Company appeared in strict formation: disciplined, unsentimental, like a Greek chorus. Costumes (Fotini Dimou) glowed scarlet like blood, purple like Phoenician royal. Hippolytus (Ihsaan de Banya) dances among his friends. He's magnificent - so muscular, so lithe, so physical. Phaedra (Allison Cook) is smitten. Because the music moves in tableaux, there are opportunities for different ensembles. Pekka Kuuisto's violin was particularly evocative, suggesting sensual, but sinister curves. Kuuisto's strong, charismatic personality makes an impact even when he's in the background. The dancers weaved languidly when he played, then snapped into fierce angular stances, as stylized and unyielding as the music itself. Alston also made more of the role of Theseus (James Muller) and Oenone (Nancy Nerantzi), fleshing out the drama as counterparts to Phaedra and Hippolytus.
Cook isn't a singer of the calibre of Janet Baker or Sarah Connolly, but she moves well.. Simon Keenlyside, an athlete and dance devotee, used to specialize in singing with dancers, an art which is quite different from just singing. He moved in sympathy with the dancers, without affecting his singing. Cook projected impressively, and made the part convincing.
The Barbican Centre also commisioned choreography for Britten's Sechs Hölderin Lieder. Dance is episoidic by nature, so songs lend themselves well to small scale scenas. The dancing was pleasant enough but these songs are far too condensed and complex to translate into movement. Their rhythmic pulse also compromises the piano line and the singing. RobinTritschler and Christopher Glynn needed to be more flexible and fluid, especially since the dancers were so lyrical.
Richard Alston's choreography of Illuminations was first created for Aldeburgh in 1994, titled "Rumours, Visions". (a quote from the final song Départ), together with Alston's Lachyrmae, which opened the evening at the Barbican. In Illuminations, Alston also creates protagonists Rimbaud (Liam Riddick) and Verlaine (Nathan Goodman) and the muse, in Being Beautous, was Elly Braund. These characters don't, strictly speaking, appear in the text, but give a danced performance dramatic context. Rimbaud and Verlaine had a torrid affair which shook provincial society. They escaped to London, then the most modern, cosmopolitan city in the world. Rimbaud was fascinated by the mechanical processes of city life. Dance brings out the subtle recurring patterns in the music, often obscured by the sheer brilliance of virtuoso performance. But therein lies the contradiction of interpreting a piece through a different medium. If the singing is too good, or too idiomatic, it draws attention away from the dance. Tritschler's voice is low for the piece, with a tendency to sing under the note, struggling at the top. Les Illuminations needs a soprano, or a very specific kind of high "Britten tenor" to bring out the surreal craziness in the piece. It also didn't help that the performance was over-miked, any subtle nuance drowned by sheer volume. But the audience at the Barbican Theatre, most of whom seemed to be dance people, were delighted, because the music served the dance. That's as it should be. We can listen to Les Illuminations any time, but we don't often get to see it danced.
Richard Alston Dance Company's Barbican Britten; Phaedra is part of Barbican Britten, a two week celebration of Britten's centenary that examiness Britten's music from stimulating new perspectives.