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Reviews

16 Oct 2018

Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ten years ago, I saw one of the first performances of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Now, Music Theatre Wales and National Dance Company Wales give the opera its first United Kingdom production - in an English translation by Amanda Holden from the original Italian: the first time, I believe, that a Dusapin opera has been performed in translation. (I shall admit to a slight disappointment that it was not in Welsh: maybe next time.)

Dusapin, Passion: Queen Elizabeth Hall

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Jennifer France (Her)

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

The premiere took place two nights earlier in Basingstoke; I saw this resourceful, imaginative dance staging at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Titles might not have been a bad idea, but there is always something to be said for making an audience listen, or at least encouraging it to do so. (There was, alas, some extraordinary distracting behaviour from a few bad apples on this occasion, one woman near me aggressively scratching herself like an alley-cat throughout, another apparently running a tombola from her handbag. Such highly distracting goings on did not appear to be part of a directorial Konzept; perhaps, however, I was missing the point.)

Dusapin’s Orpheus or rather Eurydice, opera, the lovers abstracted to Her and Him, Lei and Lui, with shadowing support from ‘The Others’ (Gli Altri), takes its place in perhaps the most venerable of all operatic traditions. Orpheus, son of Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry, and, according to some tellings of the legend, Apollo’s too, tamed animals, even charmed Hades itself, through performance on his lyre - here suggested, yet perhaps not merely to be identified with, the oud, Rihib Azar’s part and performance evocative, generative, and questioning towards the close. Orpheus’s purview - and that of Greek mousikē more generally - was greater than what we, in an age cursed by specialisation, might consider to be ‘music’: he was poet, enchanter and prophet; he communicated the qualities of all the Muses through his identity as a musical performer. Where, however, is Eurydice in all that? As ‘traditional’ a supportive figure, a victim, as ever? Here she is granted, or better she assumes, newfound agency. As Dusapin, quoted in the progamme, put it: ‘I sincerely wanted to do something with this myth, and yet I wasn’t really attracted to a story where a woman dies, engulfed by flames, sacrificed by the stare of an impatient man … So I thought: “What if the woman knew? And what if she suddenly decided not to go back towards the light?”’ Just as composers from Monteverdi to Birtwistle have retold, remade the myth in the light of their own concerns, the concerns of their times too, so have Dusapin and a splendidly integrated team of performers.

Worthy successors to the not inconsiderable team of Barbara Hannigan, Georg Nigl, Ensemble Musicatreize, Ensemble Modern, and Franck Ollu, Jennifer France, Johnny Herford, EXAUDI, the London Sinfonietta, and Geoffrey Paterson offered an outstanding musical performance, ably shadowed, incited, and criticised by a fine team of dancers. One had little doubt that the Sinfonietta and Paterson were not only presenting what one was ‘supposed’ to hear, but in the emphatic sense performing it, bringing it into life and revealing its form in the dramatic here and now. Comparisons make little sense in the case of an artist such as Hannigan; perhaps they do far more rarely than many of us would care to admit. France’s performance had us believe in this particular Eurydice, her particular concerns and ‘character’: what could be more feminist than that? Herford cheerfully yet wistfully consented to and furthered a remodelling of Orpheus’s role that leaves us all the richer. With none of Nigl’s sometimes disconcerting idiosyncrasies, he - as indeed did the rest of the team - suggested that we are all the richer for this recent chapter in the progress of the myth. A subtly raucous - yes, that is intended - duet between trombone and oboe; a recognisably celestrial yet menacing glimpse of heaven; a (false?) witness of the clavecin ‘past’; an approach to an expected final unison that proved not to be such at all: these and many more such moments attested to the fleeting quality of memory, the necessity of multiple standpoints in and of the present.

Mark Berry

Her: Jennifer France; Him: Johnny Herford; Dancers: Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Nikita Goile, Ed Myhill, Julia Rieder, Malik Williams, Queenie Maidment-Otlet. Co-directors: Michael McCarthy, Caroline Finn; Designs: Simon Banham; Lighting: Joe Fletcher. Sound Intermedia (sound design, after original concept by Thierry Cudoys)/EXAUDI/London Sinfonietta/Geoffrey Paterson (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Saturday 13 October 2018

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