17 Sep 2020

Paradise Lost: Tête-à-Tête 2020

‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven … that old serpent … Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.’

Into the blackness of the unlit Cockpit Theatre resounded a spoken voice, solemnly pronouncing Book 12 of Revelations. Piano chords stamped angrily, followed by lighter, exploratory gestures which ventured through that darkness. Then, we heard a sung voice which flung a question into the void:

“Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,
… That we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light?”

The first few minutes of Geoff Page’s Paradise Lost - a one-man show written for countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, which was performed live on 12th September, presented as an interactive broadcast three days later, and is available on demand for one month - set out the work’s musical stall. Lyrical ‘arias’, punctuated by melismatic swoops, swells and slides; alternations between Zazzo’s countertenor and baritone ranges; minimalist repetitions, pulsing moderato chords and sparse, high tinklings from Page at the piano. More cantata than opera - though perhaps not presented in its ‘final’ form (in a post-show discussion Zazzo indicated that the hour of music that we experienced had been whittled out of a much longer work) - Page’s score was decoratively pictorial rather than dramatic, though others may well have found its cinematic, emotion-inciting patterns more satisfying.

What made this Tête-à-Tête Opera production so stimulating was Zazzo’s performance as Lucifer, the fallen angel, tempter of Eve, destroyer of man’s innocence. Weaving through gentle lyricism (there are a few Finzi-esque pastoralisms, shot through with the odd touch of modernism), strident anger, and spoken declamation, this was a performance which embraced an astonishing emotional gamut and did so with courage, commitment and impressive technical underpinning. Purity, power, presence: Zazzo evinced all three. What a show with which to return to the performing platform after months of lockdown and the silencing of one’s singing voice.

Anyone attempting to turn Milton’s ten books and ten thousand lines-plus of blank verse into a one-hour musico-dramatic work faces an impossible task. Page wisely focuses on just a few passages of text: those which, in the main, depict the thoughts and words of Lucifer himself. We have the fall from heaven in Book 1, the temptation of Eve in Book 9, and the exultant reflections (from Book 10) of the deluded ‘victor’, whose power Milton’s language undermines even as his words describe. There are a few lines from the start and end of Books 2 and 3; and imagery and phrases from Book 4, when Satan first espies Eve, are inserted into the temptation scene. Some excisions of imagery make a nonsense of the grammar. As Page pointed out, the story is well known so there’s no need to explain and fill in gaps, but this didn’t dissuade him from using a spoken voice-over narration; and we hear Eve’s voice too. Neither of these spoken voices were identified or credited.

But, the focus on Lucifer himself is effective: and one can imagine this score working very well as a monologue, perhaps retitled Lucifer, in the manner of Britten’s Phaedra. The deeply felt despair of the loss of celestial light; the vengeful conversion of defeat into victory; the heroism which is heading unstoppably towards horrific self-destruction: we feel all of Lucifer’s delusions and ambitions. A chair and music-stand were strewn with ivy, an apple was ‘plucked’ from a ‘tree’, and the tempting of Eve was vocally irresistible. We heard the crunch of the bite that gave man ‘knowledge’ and left him in eternal suffering.

Satan’s final triumphant ecstasies omitted a crucial phrase from Milton’s text: ‘His seed, when is not set, shall bruise my head:/ A world who would not purchase with a bruise,/ Or much more grievous pain?/ Ye have the account/ Of my performance: What remains, ye gods,/ But up, and enter now into full bliss?’

For, this was a stunning performance: authoritative and brave - and, much like Milton’s own rebellion against absolute rule, blindness and loss, a reminder of human courage, ‘never to submit or yield/ and what is else not to be overcome?’

Claire Seymour

Paradise Lost : Geoff Page (composer/piano), Lawrence Zazzo (countertenor)

Tête-à-Tête 2020; performed live at the Cockpit Theatre, London, 12 th September 2020; broadcast on 15th September 2020.