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Performances

Scene from Caliban
01 Apr 2017

New opera Caliban banal and wearisome

Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.

New opera Caliban banal and wearisome

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Scene from Caliban

 

Caliban was one of three world premieres at the 2017 Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam. While only a few new operas will be masterpieces, some, such as this one, should not be inflicted on the public. Caliban retells Shakespeare’s The Tempest while focusing on its title character, the deformed witch’s son from whom Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, steals the island of his exile. When Prospero learns that his treacherous brother is passing by on a ship, he uses sorcery to create a sea-storm to strand its passengers. The Tempest’s shipwrecked party is reduced to the servants Stephano and Trinculo, with whom Caliban plans a failed coup against Prospero, and Ferdinand, Prince of Naples, who eventually marries Prospero’s daughter, Miranda.

Librettist Peter te Nuyl applies a post-colonialist reading to the plot, translating Shakespeare into modern speech. “The red plague rid you” becomes “The red plague will rot you”. When Prospero catches Caliban and Miranda being intimate, he ends his abusive attempts to educate and civilize the native islander. From then on it’s abuse without edification. In the end Caliban rebels and overthrows his master. He abandons his primitive syntax (“Caliban angry”) and appropriates Prospero’s speech about life being “such stuff as dreams are made on”, finally learning the language of Shakespeare, just as Prospero wanted. This is about as much Shakespeare as the opera contains, apart from Miranda stealing some of Lady Macbeth’s lines, disclosing her own political ambitions. Updating Shakespeare is all very well, but Te Nuyl’s lines are often banal and at times perplexing. “Sneer ’em, jeer ’em. Thought is free”, the drunkard Stephano sings in his Mockney accent, words that suggest alcohol pickles your prepositions as well as your liver. Colonization dispossesses and enslaves, and gives birth to monsters in its own image – a perfectly valid theory that has to make do with the humorless libretto and enervating music.

Eggert’s palette is promising, tinged darkish by low-pitched instruments such as the bass flute and bass clarinet. An accordion references Eastern European strains and there are Schoenberg-like violin solos. But these wisps of melody rise from a bed of sludgy chords or hover above clumps of notes on a loop. The singers senselessly reiterate phrases in ever-widening note intervals or hiccup compulsively in staccato. The entire score is mired in stagnant repetition. There are interesting passages, such as mariachi echoes by trumpet and trombone to a salsa beat on the bongo drums. Ferdinand sings a romantic aria in English Renaissance style, ironically accompanied by wheezy chords, but mindlessness soon returns. Miranda responds with a vapid pop number called “I don’t know anyone of my sex”, with illustrative crotch grabbing. As well versed as they are in bringing new music to life, the Asko|Schönberg musicians, alertly led by Steven Sloane, could not make the work intriguing.

Lotte de Beer’s low-cost staging cleverly uses all the corners of the stage, and suited both venue and chamber opera format. Characters move dynamically, wheeling in the flight cases and scaffolding that make up the set. They change costumes onstage, picking items from large garment racks. Prospero creates his tempest with rows of fans, dry ice and a strobe light. Another asset of the production was the talented cast. Alexander Oliver was splendidly sinister as Prospero, a spoken role, in Fair Isle sweater and tie (not geek chic, but retired headmaster with good china and a mean streak). De Beer underscores his overbearing nature by magnifying his smirk on a wall using live video.

Soprano Alexandra Flood and tenor Timothy Fallon shared six roles between them, playing Prospero’s minions as well as, respectively, Miranda/Trinculo and Ferdinand/Stephano. Flood has a lovely, full-toned voice, which she handled with facility. Fallon sang spiritedly and, when the music allowed for it, with pleasing legato. Michael Wilmering was a characterful Caliban, projecting rude instinct and innocence in equal measure. The music required him to repeatedly push up his silky baritone into falsetto. To his great credit, Wilmering sang beautifully to the end. Regrettably, these quality voices were amplified. Was it impossible to amplify only the spoken dialogue? Was it because the orchestration included a synthesizer imitating a bad-tempered organ? Or was it because Operafront, the production company, targets new opera audiences, who can’t digest unamplified voices? Whatever the reason, the electronically “enhanced” singing in a small venue such as the Compagnietheater was loud and bothersome. Putting on new operas is one of the admirable aims of the Opera Forward Festival. Alas, this one deserves to sink without a trace.

Jenny Camilleri


Cast and production information:

Caliban: Michael Wilmering; Miranda/Trinculo: Alexandra Flood; Stephano/Ferdinand: Timothy Fallon; Prospero: Alexander Oliver. Director: Lotte de Beer; Set and Costume Design: Clement & Sanôu; Lighting Design: Maarten Warmerdam. Composer: Moritz Eggert; Libretto: Peter te Nuyl; Conductor: Steven Sloane. Asko|Schönberg. Seen at the Compagnietheater, Amsterdam, Thursday, 30th March 2017.

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