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Reviews

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - Denelle & Tom Ellis
15 May 2019

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II, a world premiere at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II

Photo credit: Denelle & Tom Ellis

 

Taking as it root inspiration Stockhausen’s Welt-Parlament, the first scene from his opera Mittwoch aus Licht, Actress (or, Darren Cunningham) has undoubtedly composed something impressively large-scale - though it is clearly neither Stockhausen nor conventional opera. I don’t think you feel short changed because of that, but over its 70 minutes it misses the mark on several fronts while being of quite a high order on others. The revelation here was often to be found in the vocal writing - as obliterated, and pixelated, as it often comes across - rather than the tremendous blocks of sound which ebb and flow with a semi-volcanic force, though they can ultimately seem quite restrained. Cunningham might have looked to the Stockhausen of COSMIC PULSES for that pyroclastic, cosmological power for a more penetrating effect built on his AI and electronica - instead, one often felt trapped beneath a thunderstorm or in a wind tunnel.

Welt-Parlament is not specifically sectional - though the complexity of the layered writing for the voices and the subdivisional way in which Stockhausen modulates rhythm, alternates between registers and creates multiple densities of sound to different choir groups can give it that impression. Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II is obviously a more sectional work, and needs to be, given it is almost twice the length. It takes considerable time for Cunningham’s piece to even become a sung work - one could argue if it is an opera it has one of the longest preludes of any - but the debt to Stockhausen when you get to hear the voices is quite apparent. There is a spatial aura, a sense of the unknown about where those voices first emerge from. They finally come, somewhat penitently, in white robes, down the steps of the stalls only to leave the auditorium and then reappear on stage without the robes.

Stockhausen is rather more concerned in Welt-Parlament (as he was in so much of his music for the voice) with exploring the limits to which it could be stretched and used as an instrument; the use of vowel sounds in Welt-Parlament is almost repetitively obsessive. Cunningham has largely avoided this approach - though not entirely because by using AI he has been able to tangibly change the structure of syllables and use linguistics in a specific way. You can barely make out that the words are German - and a libretto might have been more than helpful here. In the end it probably doesn’t matter because the quality of writing for the soloists is very impressive, and it was often indelibly striking enough to resonate. The sheer range of the vocal register is huge, stretching right from the bottom of the scale to the upper-most reaches. Cunningham has kept some of the effects which Stockhausen uses in Welt-Parlament - blocking, long tones, clicking, rushing sounds, the occasional click and the use of kisses. But thematically, this is very close to what Stockhausen intended - even if dramatically it departs significantly from what the composer asks for. I believe only two or three rehearsals may have taken place - but the sheer quality of the singing from Nederlands Kamerkoor seemed to have a lifetime’s experience of this music behind it.

Denelle & Tom Ellis Stockhausen Sin {x} II.jpgPhoto credit: Denelle & Tom Ellis.

This is, of course, a parliament about love - albeit one where its people have been abandoned to make way for the brutal pursuit of power. A World Parliament is convened to debate the nature of love and to sign into law a universal treaty which will protect it because life cannot exist or be sustained without love. Like Stockhausen’s original, it is the “meaning” of the word love which is to be debated - though what Cunningham tries to achieve is a broader, more modern discussion that tries to focus on contemporary issues of gender, equality, identity and race. He fuses British and Dutch politicians - and if what emerges is sometimes a little stilted it’s probably because of the unorthodox subject for protagonists a little unfamiliar with debating something other than politics.

The roles of Eve (The Romantic), Michael (The Rationalist) and Lucifer (The Antagonist) are taken from within the choir - and were magnificently sung. However, the sectional - even fragmentary way - in which this work disintegrates, and the way in which the staging is designed, left me with a somewhat different impression as to who Eve, Michael and Lucifer might sometimes have been. A stenographer/pianist (Vanessa Benelli Mosell), the conductor (Robert Ames) and Cunningham himself (with a rather malevolent Darth Vaderish figure on screen behind him) seemed viable shadows of these three key roles.

Staging any Stockhausen work is fraught with difficulty - or, even staging a work which owes a debt to one of his pieces as Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II does. I remember the Birmingham Opera Company staging this particular scene in a factory with the parliament perched high up on ladders - a very different vision to what Stockhausen intended which is a glass dome on top of a skyscraper. The approach here in the Royal Festival Hall was ultimately more pragmatic (though it may well be staged slightly differently in the magnificent, and vast, gas building which will house this work’s next performance at the end of the month at the Holland Festival). If the strips of lighting across the top of the stage did give a semblance of the cosmos to it all, the actual parliament seemed as conventional as a session at The Hague. Lighting was almost minimal - especially during the vast opening and closing electronica sections which were played in a kind of tenebrous darkness. A video screen behind Actress proved less distracting than I imagined - though there was something fascinating about watching the pixels collapse until the colours deepen into red and finally it just blanks out.

The most notable weakness in this work is the piano part - which I simply failed to comprehend. Cunningham had mentioned during a discussion before Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II’s premiere that the only composer for piano with whom he really identifies is Ravel - and yet, oddly, almost nothing of Ravel came through in the writing for this part at all. This just felt whimsical, added nothing particularly revealing to the work and felt tonally out of context with the rest of it. Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II might have left an almost universally favourable impression without this entire section.

I don’t think this is a piece which challenges listeners in many of the ways that Stockhausen’s works do - twenty-five years after Welt-Parlament was composed the dynamics and complexity of that music are out of reach for many composers. Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II is an interesting diversion into a multi-format sound world - though perhaps not an opera - but at its best it is an impressive achievement for this young composer.

Marc Bridle

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II , a co-commission with the Southbank and the Holland Festival

Premiere given by Actress, Young Paint, Robert Ames, Vanessa Benelli Moselli and Nederlands Kamerkoor.

Royal Festival Hall, London; 14th May 2019.

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