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<em>Cave</em>: London Sinfonietta & The Royal Opera House
24 Jun 2018

Cave: a new opera by Tansy Davies and Nick Drake

Opera seems to travel far from the opera house these days. Alongside numerous productions in community spaces and pub theatres, in the last few years I’ve enjoyed productions staged on the shingle shore of Aldeburgh beach, at the bottom of the shaft of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe, and in a renovated warehouse in Shoreditch on the roof of which perch four ‘creative studios’ in the form of recycled Jubilee line train carriages and shipping containers.

Cave: London Sinfonietta & The Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cave at Printworks

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

 

Does the nature of a venue shape one’s experience of a work, or is it inconsequential? Obviously, there are practical factors that may influence one’s response - the acoustic, sight-lines, distance between audience and performers, even the degree of physical comfort or discomfort - and external atmosphere can certainly seep and diffuse into one’s inner experience. Lowering skies over a whipped up North Sea, the bite of a brisk breeze and the salty tang of the ocean might melt away the years between a present-day fishing town and George Crabbe’s early nineteenth-century Borough.

I mention these matters because Cave, a new opera by Tansy Davies, with a libretto by Nick Drake, produced by the London Sinfonietta in association with The Royal Opera, led me to reflect on issues relating to site-specific performances, such as the relationship between musical and architectural form, the dialogue between form and function, the potential longevity of works designed for specific places.

Set for Cave with MP.jpgMark Padmore as Man. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting venue in which to present Cave than Printworks, the former south-east London home of a newspaper printing-press which has been transformed into an events venue comprising six cavernous spaces, arranged over multiple levels connected by a corridor-maze. It was once Western Europe’s largest print facility, spread over 119,200 square feet, and entering into its vastness - the cathedral-like ceilings arch up into infinite darkness, strange slippery echoes take one unawares, lights starkly challenge and shadows flicker hauntingly - was slightly disorientating. The walls had been hung with shifting white fabric and a river of floor-lights guided us through the darkness into this immersive twilight zone, the very fabric of which seemed woven into Cave, a near-future dystopia of post-apocalypse barrenness and loneliness.

Drake’s libretto - or perhaps poem would be a better term - is set in a world devastated by climate change and communicates the grief of a father who enters an underground spirit world in a quest to connect with his daughter, Hannah, who is ‘lost’. Dead or simply missing, it’s not clear. Indeed, uncertainty seems the only certainty in this half-world. As Davies explained in a recentinterview, “ Cave is about Skin. The skin between life and death, the skin between humans and animals, the relationship between father and daughter. The cave goes through several phases of being imagined by the father whose lost his daughter and he’s remembering her. There’s a sense of things being apparently there, but not there. Half-there you might say.”

Subsumed into the darkness of the cave, the father reminisces on the world’s tragic tipping-point and mourns ‘the extinction of colour’. His dreams of re-birth, of enchanted forests, are severed by the roar of war-planes. Shadows tower threateningly as he is engulfed by a hysterical fear which destroys language, until one shadow transforms into a tree which provides peace and shelter. And, it is here, through memory, that he re-connects with Hannah, whose tattooed arm attests to her ‘courage’ as clearly as her words convey the certainty of her faith in regeneration. When she departs, a storm breaks, literally and in his heart, but the water is restorative and forms a running river which bears him into the future, to “begin again/ With your voice/ In mine -”

MP in storm.jpgMark Padmore as Man. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

Cave was inspired by visits which the composer and librettist made to the Cave of Niaux in Southern France, on the floor of which is a dry river bed, which led them to explore the historic significance of caves for humans, as ritual and communal spaces for sharing culture and knowledge. If there is no ‘plot’ in a traditional sense, and equivocation and liminality are at the opera’s core, then there is certainly a clear ‘message’, that nature is a healing force in the face of human suffering and despair. Davies comments, “Cave is also about the relationship we have with nature. The performance isn’t just about grief and loss. It’s about gaining through wisdom.”

It’s a message that was communicated too in Davies and Drake’s first collaboration, Between Worlds (premiered at the Barbican in 2015), a similarly poetic drama which placed the events of 9/11 within human experience and suffering. Occasionally, though, Drake’s ecological evangelism is expressed with a little too much blunt ideological fervour. Hannah avows, “I want to do something/ About the disaster we’ve made”, just as Davies declares that she and Drake “both want to try and achieve a better world”, genuinely worthy sentiments which might seem naively idealistic, just as Hannah’s condemnation of “This insane exploitation/ Of people and Nature -/ For what? So we can have 4x4s?/ And holidays in the sun/ And peaches in winter?” and her ‘solution’, “We have to imagine/ A humbler way to belong together -”, seems simplistic in the face of the depth and complexity of modern-day challenges.

Despite this, director Lucy Bailey’s presentation of this one-hour opera was as compelling as Davies’ score, which crept delicately and hauntingly above and around the audience, was hypnotically beautiful. Designer Mike Britton placed the audience on tiers which stretched along an extended central galley, a mulchy undergrowth of chippings and mud, the ends of which were bathed in lighting designer Jack Knowles’ mood-changing colours. Shadows shifted and loomed, before slipping into the surrounding darkness.

MARK PADMORE as MAN.jpgMark Padmore as Man. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

Conductor Geoffrey Paterson and six members of the London Sinfonietta were assembled at one end, from which floated Davies’ delicately embroidered sound-scape. As the low resonations of the bass clarinet and contra-bassoon swirled around the harp’s high pure intonations, embraced by electronic stutterings and swoons, it was as if Printworks had become a repository of a primordial language which was both intuitive and imaginative, brutal and beautiful. I’m not sure that the music ‘articulated’ the words in any direct way but it powerfully evoked another world, beyond words, as Davies herself described: “In Cave we discover a portal into an ancient belief-system where humans understood life through interacting with nature much more.”

More than the music’s drama and delicacy, though, it was the performance of tenor Mark Padmore as the questing protagonist which made Cave so gripping. Padmore’s commitment, vocal and physical, was astonishingly intense and unwavering, from his first dishevelled entrance, clutching a briefcase which he would later set alight, to the transfiguration of his departure via the lost river. Whether lyricising or crooning, speaking or howling, clapping or whistling, every utterance was delivered with care and sensitivity; and, the purity of his voice was immensely touching, creating credibility and empathy for a character whose situation and intent might seem distanced from our own experiences. One could only admire the stamina and focus required to sustain this throughout the man’s soul-changing experiences - which included stripping off his tatty suit, being drenched by the storm, and curling up in the damp compost.

ELAINE MITCHENER as HANNAH.jpgElaine Mitchener as Hannah. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

As Hannah and the ‘Voice’ which echoes through the cave and in the man’s memory, mezzo-soprano Elaine Mitchener demonstrated vocal versatility, smoothly stretching across registral leaps, her enunciation of the short, often speech-like melodic fragments fluent and natural. Akilah Mantock danced gracefully as the young Hannah who runs through the man’s memories.

Emerging from the enveloping intimacy of this performance and stepping onto the mundane streets of Canada Water, still sunlit in the early evening, was as unsettling as entering Printworks’ vast cavern had been one hour earlier. Davies describes her creative engagement with the venue as being like ‘playing a duet with the space’; site and sound had truly communicated as one.

Claire Seymour

Tansy Davies: Cave (with a libretto by Nick Drake)

Mark Padmore (tenor), Elaine Mitchener (mezzo-soprano), Akilah Mantock (young Hannah); Lucy Bailey (director), Geoffrey Paterson (conductor), Mike Britton (designer), Jack Knowles (lighting designer), Sarah Dowling (movement director), Sound Intermedia (sound design), London Sinfonietta (Timothy Lines - clarinet/bass clarinet, John Orford - contra-bassoon, Michael Thompson - horn, Jonathan Morton - violin, Enno Senft - double bass, Helen Tunstall - harp).

Printworks, London; Wednesday 20th June 2018.

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