Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Mahler’s Third Symphony launches Prague Symphony Orchestra's UK tour

The Anvil in Basingstoke was the first location for a strenuous seven-concert UK tour by the Prague Symphony Orchestra - a venue-hopping trip, criss-crossing the country from Hampshire to Wales, with four northern cities and a pit-stop in London spliced between Edinburgh and Nottingham.

Rigoletto past, present and future: a muddled production by Christiane Lutz for Glyndebourne Touring Opera

Charlie Chaplin was a master of slapstick whose rag-to-riches story - from workhouse-resident clog dancer to Hollywood legend with a salary to match his status - was as compelling as the physical comedy that he learned as a member of Fred Karno’s renowned troupe.

Rinaldo Through the Looking-Glass: Glyndebourne Touring Opera in Canterbury

Robert Carsen’s production of Rinaldo, first seen at Glyndebourne in 2011, gives a whole new meaning to the phrases ‘school-boy crush’ and ‘behind the bike-sheds’.

Predatory power and privilege in WNO's Rigoletto at the Birmingham Hippodrome

At a party hosted by a corrupt and dissolute political leader, wealthy patriarchal predators bask in excess, prowling the room on the hunt for female prey who seem all too eager to trade their sexual favours for the promise of power and patronage. ‘Questa o quella?’ the narcissistic host sings, (this one or that one?), indifferent to which woman he will bed that evening, assured of impunity.

Virginie Verrez captivates in WNO's Carmen at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Jo Davies’ new production of Carmen for Welsh National Opera presents not the exotic Orientalism of nineteenth-century France, nor a tale of the racial ‘Other’, feared and fantasised in equal measure by those whose native land she has infiltrated.

Die Zauberflöte brings mixed delights at the Royal Opera House

When did anyone leave a performance of Mozart’s Singspiel without some serious head scratching?

Haydn's La fedeltà premiata impresses at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama

‘Exit, pursued by an octopus.’ The London Underground insignia in the centre of the curtain-drop at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Silk Street Theatre, advised patrons arriving for the performance of Joseph Haydn’s La fedeltà premiata (Fidelity Rewarded, 1780) that their Tube journey had terminated in ‘Arcadia’ - though this was not the pastoral idyll of Polixenes’ Bohemia but a parody of paradise more notable for its amatory anarchy than any utopian harmony.

Van Zweden conducts an unforgettable Walküre at the Concertgebouw

When native son Jaap van Zweden conducts in Amsterdam the house sells out in advance and expectations are high. Last Saturday, he returned to conduct another Wagner opera in the NTR ZaterdagMatinee series. The Concertgebouw audience was already cheering the maestro loudly before anyone had played a single note. By the end of this concert version of Die Walküre, the promise implicit in the enthusiastic greeting had been fulfilled. This second installment of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung was truly memorable, and not just because of Van Zweden’s imprint.

Purcell for our time: Gabrieli Consort & Players at St John's Smith Square

Passing the competing Union and EU flags on College Green beside the Palace of Westminster on my way to St John’s Smith Square, where Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort & Players were to perform Henry Purcell’s 1691 'dramatic opera' King Arthur, the parallels between England now and England then were all too evident.

The Dallas Opera Cockerel: It’s All Golden

I greatly enjoyed the premiere of The Dallas Opera’s co-production with Santa Fe Opera of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel when it debuted at the latter in the summer festival of 2018.

Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is featuring Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller.

Philip Glass: Music with Changing Parts - European premiere of revised version

Philip Glass has described Music with Changing Parts as a transitional work, its composition falling between earlier pieces like Music in Fifths and Music in Contrary Motion (both written in 1969), Music in Twelve Parts (1971-4) and the opera Einstein on the Beach (1975). Transition might really mean aberrant or from no-man’s land, because performances of it have become rare since the very early 1980s (though it was heard in London in 2005).

Wexford Festival Opera 2019

The 68th Wexford Festival Opera, which runs until Sunday 3rd November, is bringing past, present and future together in ways which suggest that the Festival is in good health, and will both blossom creatively and stay true to its roots in the years ahead.

Cenerentola, jazzed to the max

Seattle Opera’s current staging of Cenerentola is mostly fun to watch. It is also a great example of how trying too hard to inflate a smallish work to fill a huge auditorium can make fun seem more like work.

Bottesini’s Alì Babà Keeps Them Laughing

On Friday evening October 25, 2019, Opera Southwest opened its 47th season with composer Giovanni Bottesini and librettist Emilio Taddei’s Alì Babà in a version reconstructed from the original manuscript score by Conductor Anthony Barrese.

Ovid and Klopstock clash in Jurowski’s Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’

There were two works on this London Philharmonic Orchestra programme given by Vladimir Jurowski – Colin Matthews’s Metamorphosis and Gustav Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’. The way Jurowski played it, however, one might have been forgiven for thinking we were listening to a new work by Mahler, something which may not have been lost on those of us who recalled that Matthews had collaborated with Deryck Cooke on the completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Quicksand by Robert Ashley (Burning Books)
02 Feb 2016

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

A review by Rebecca Lentjes

Above: Quicksand by Robert Ashley (Burning Books)

 

The voice of the late Robert Ashley—a recognizable mumble of a low yet crisp American drawl—filled the immense performance space at the Kitchen with a distinct presence, despite the empty stage and his March 2014 death. Some might have perceived the experience of Ashley’s recorded voice reciting the words of his detective novel Quicksand as somewhat akin to listening to an audiobook; yet for any Ashley aficionado the experience only affirmed the composer’s ability to draw novel experiences (no pun intended) out of American speech patterns. The spoken words of Ashley’s “television operas” and this “opera-novel”, unlike the sung texts of “normal” operas, do not have their meaning obscured by the voice as an aesthetic object; instead the narrative sentiment and aural rhythms of speech become intricately bound as a vehicle not only for musical but for philosophical contemplation. The world première of Quicksand, produced by Ashley’s widow Mimi Johnson, highlights the ability of voice, and of vocal storytelling, to animate words and sentiments even in the form of an unsung, unassuming murmur: even in the physical absence of a human body.

In the last few years of his life, Ashley wrote a novel, Quicksand (Burning Books, 2011), recorded himself reading it out loud, and collaborated with composer and audio producer Tom Hamilton on the transformation from novel to opera-novel. After an original version that was more in the tradition of Ashley’s television operas, involving a “strictly metered and very stylized” vocal ensemble, Ashley and Hamilton broke away from conventional musical time altogether, and Ashley instead read the 150-page book as quickly as he could, with Hamilton editing out the silence between the words. Hamilton also composed an electronic orchestra accompaniment which is based on a 16-chord sequence from Ashley’s earlier opera eL/Aficionado (1993), his goal being to personify the quicksand of the title with “an unstable harmonic landscape, never fully grounded in any familiar context.” Instead, the sounds flit around the audience’s ears, a solitary fly buzzing and multiplying into a swarm of electronics and drones, smoky in texture as the air in the performance space, which became filled with the acrid scent of smoke at the beginning and end of each act.

Another Ashley collaborator, choreographer Steve Paxton, had a similar approach. Dancers Maura Gahan and Jurij Konjar wander around the stage in a series of mostly irrelevant motions, their bodies frequently obscured by a massive parachute quilt, under which their muffled human forms twisting the colors and folds into new shapes and designs. Paxton notes that Ashley “did not anticipate illustration of the elements of the text”; his divertissements are meant to be subtle, abstract accompaniments to the plot and never to overwhelm the texts. A recurring formation is Konjar seated and typing in thin air while Gahan stands next to him, folding her arms across her body, at times wearing a plant on her head so that she resembles a palm tree.

At times the two dancers pace across the stage, their movements ranging from measured and careful to gracefully spastic. At others, the dancers are nowhere in sight, and instead a choreography of lights and colors provides the visual backdrop for Ashley’s wry mumble. David Moodey’s lighting shows rather than tells, with colors materializing as an externalization of emotion or mood rather than indicators of time of day or location. Sometimes colors waft across the quilt, floating from green into blue into pink, while at others a divertissement of spotlights and darkness plays out across the quilt. The opera’s central visual component, at times the quilt hangs from the ceiling like a flag, while at others it crumbles and collapses, snatching Konjar and Gahan into its deflated obscurity.

The only other prop in the opera is a giant cardboard gun, which makes a few key appearances and seems to aptly serve Ashley’s larger points. Of course, the opera-novel isn’t really just a spy story, as most of Ashley’s works are “about” much more than what appears on the surface. In Quicksand, the fictionalized version of Ashley (an opera composer who periodically receives assignments involving guns, watches, secret passports sewn into his carry-on, and the dismantling of dictatorships) has been sent to a fictionalized South Asian country by “the Company”. Ashley uses his trademark irony and self-deprecating humor as the fictionalized version of himself joins his wife for a yoga retreat but ends up hiding on the hotel bathroom floor, clutching the gun that mysteriously appeared in the drawer next to his bed. I say “ends up”, but this is the scene with which the story begins, filling in some gaps but leaving others to the imagination.

The plot hops through time as witticisms abound, keeping the listener engaged despite the detachment of the visual and aural elements. The hitmen sidekicks assigned to him by the Company are referred to as “the Steelers” due to their resemblance to pro football players. Ashley’s incredulity over his missing bag and the questioning of the air hostess—“What is she talking about? It’s a carry-on. I carried it on.”—is delivered much more fittingly when spoken rather than in print. (The audience cracked up both nights I attended.) Although Ashley explores global issues with a gripping (if anything but linear) spy narrative, at heart this is an opera about different kinds of people and different kinds of love: “You can see it and maybe you can touch it. Maybe you can talk to it, but you can never have it.”

Rebecca Lentjes

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):