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Reviews

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Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

Denis & Katya: Music Theatre Wales - Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, 14th March 2020

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Emily Edmonds (mezzo soprano) and Johnny Herford (baritone)

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

A Venables opera is not a comfortable experience. 4.48 Psychosis , which I reviewed in 2018, is drawn from Sarah Kane’s final full-scale play, though it is a work which often seems less like drama and more like opera in its theatricality. In one sense, this opera is almost like a prelude to the drama of Denis & Katya. Parallels with Wagner might not seem that obscure or unusual to make. There isn’t any link between the dramatis personae that threads these works together; but very like Wagner, there are motifs and themes which are common - and very uncommon - to both. The orchestral forces differ between the two operas, but what they share are spatial symmetry and a kind of Morse code in the sound that is sometimes generated. If 4.48 Psychosis is about psychological fragility, the descent into madness, a suicide note drenched in the poetry of opera then Denis & Katya is almost the obverse of this. There is nothing fragile here, rather it’s the tornado of a psychological breakdown, a madness that is violent, a suicide note that is played out in public and broadcast in a language that eschews the poetic into something entirely demotic. One suicide is very private as we experience a mind disintegrating; another suicide is entirely public as it is played out over social media. Psychosis can be an internal civil war, or it can be one that’s like a video game.

Both Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis and Denis & Katya are autobiographical though in highly different ways and witnessed through very different microscopes. Kane’s was a vast monologue, a torrential emotional topography which ended up haunting and tragic from a deeply personal perspective. Denis & Katya is entirely narrative based, though the panorama we see through the webcam and lens of the website, Periscope, is entirely voyeuristic. What violence and tragedy unfolds happens exponentially - the greater the audience becomes, the more extreme the action and drama becomes. It was never unavoidable during this period of cabin fever that the complicity of a world-wide audience tagging each other would be anything other than explosive in its outcome. The case of a virus going viral. And, all that separates the audiences of this tragedy through time is the notion of our distance to it. Whether it be the real time of the events themselves, or the narrative describing the past, the voyeurism of who is watching it is unchanged.

What obviously makes Denis & Katya more compelling - even for Venables and Huffman to get on this particular bandwagon - is who Denis and Katya were. Read newspaper cuttings from the time (a relatively recent 2016) and you’ll find these are a couple of Russian teenagers invariably described as “beautiful”; almost all the photographs that exist of them show them to be clearly in love with each other. What precipitates tragedy in all love stories is disapproval, that love is somehow forbidden. The parallel for the media was Romeo and Juliet but it could have been Tristan and Isolde. Add in a shoot-out and aggressive, aimless hedonism and you come closer to something like Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation, although perhaps the celebrity culture which these dysfunctional teenagers began to crave resembled more Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. But where it is easy to find sensationalism and exploitation in a story about youth and suicide Venables and Huffman are sensitive to their tragedy. This is an opera about Denis and Katya but there are no Denis and Katya. Instead, the events are narrated entirely by six characters, and performed by just two singers.

Because of this what we get is a story that is second-hand at best. It is derived from crime-based reconstructions, documentaries, interviews - and some of it is fictionalised. Even the outcome itself is uncertain, a suicide off camera, just as in all Greek theatre where tragedy often happened off-stage. (This ‘unseen’ suicide has indeed been a source of speculation and fake news ever since.) But there is nothing Sophoclean or Aeschylean about this story except in the rewriting of the role and function of the Greek Chorus. No longer narrating what the protagonists of this drama are doing, they have become actors looking inwards on their webcams, directing the action, no longer just spectators but ones who will become deeply implicated in its outcome.

Music Theatre Wales.jpg Emily Edmonds (mezzo soprano) and Johnny Herford (baritone). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

How far this approach to Denis & Katya blurs the lines between theatre and opera is a thin one. The very concept of narration means much of this opera is spoken rather than sung. This doesn’t always work in its favour. I found the concept of translation, which was only needed for the Russian text, overused when it was applied to the English text as well. As a kind of vocal doubling it worked - but you can have too much of a good thing. The opening prologue - which is long - sets the scene but is hugely descriptive because there are no sets. Any kind of visual set requires very little imagination from its audience - what you see is exactly that. A TV set is described in some detail - where it is, the kind it is - but this is important because it is a central part of their story. It isn’t so much something they watch but something which becomes rooted in their violence - it is blown apart with a shotgun and eventually thrown through a window. Little of this could be shown on stage but works convincingly when narrated.

Of the six roles, the Journalist and the Friend are the most important (the former sung by a mezzo-soprano, the latter by a baritone) and these are also the ones which are principally sung (though the opposite singer will also perform spoken dialogue). The Neighbour and the Teenager are both performed in Russian (again, with a simultaneous translation), and the Teacher and Medic are both played as a duet. If this sounds a little hectic, what it does is to keep the opera flowing rather as you’d expect the events they’re describing to unfold with similar urgency.

Emily Edmonds and Johnny Herford were hugely impressive. If the opera begins in a relatively straightforward way, requiring both singers to just paint the scene for us, it rarely remains this easy for them. Sometimes the sudden changes between one role and the next left the singers with little margin for error. But it was the ability to switch between multiple roles and make them sound distinctive which required a more creative and deft artistry. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that it was Edmonds’s The Neighbour and Herford’s The Teenager (both of which are sung in Russian) which proved the most distinctive. Herford’s Teenager was on the edge, brittle and innocently touching, and his singing was everything about these things - a very vivid contrast to Edmonds’s Neighbour who was an extraordinarily powerful figure. Perhaps this power stems from the very nature of The Neighbour - a character who has nebulous or ambiguous feelings about Denis and Katya, who is uncertain about the events because she only sees them from a distance. There is even something suggestive of Britten’s Mrs Sedley in the part - even down to both roles being sung by a mezzo, and the more sinuous scoring. If the Journalist and The Friend are the central figures narrating the story, and these were beautifully done by Edmonds and Herford, it’s tempting to argue that both The Teacher and The Medic might have been roles better absorbed elsewhere.

Denis & Katya by Music Theatre Wales (Emily Edmonds mezzo soprano and Johnny Herford baritone, musicians London (1).jpgEmily Edmonds (mezzo soprano) and Johnny Herford (baritone), musicians (London Sinfonietta). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The orchestration for Denis & Katya is unusual, and even tighter than Venables used in 4.48 Psychosis, which was limited to twelve instruments. As with his first opera, Venables doesn’t use the orchestra as a means to an end but as a significant part of the narrative. The instruments blend with the voices, and the scoring is micromanaged to reflect this. Scored for just four cellos - amplified by microphones - they span the mezzo/baritone range well. More interestingly, and certainly the intimacy of the Purcell Room acoustic helped, was the sheer aural weight and potency of a quartet of them. With each cello arranged at a quarter edge of the stage, they would play either in absolute unity or as a quartet of soloists in their own right. The scoring is exceptionally well done, and perhaps is no finer than in the music given to The Neighbour which is both muscular and driven. The four cellists from the London Sinfonietta were superb, the virtuosity limitless.

Much of Andrew Lieberman’s scenic and lighting design remains on the minimalist side - extravagantly so for much of the opera’s seventy-minute running time. This emptiness is almost entirely focussed on the stage itself where only two chairs for the singers are used, the cellists spatially placed at each corner. But this isn’t about what the audience sees it’s about what they should imagine, not just in a staged sense but in a psychological one. That what we do see (Pierre Martin’s highly imaginative video design) relies entirely on the width of the Purcell Room’s stage - that unbroken span of screen a vast computer monitor of typed out messages, each letter accompanied by an electroacoustic click. Only towards the end of the opera is there any real action as a train begins to leave the Russian village of Strugi Krasnye where all of these events have taken place. As the train gathers speed and travels one way, the effect on the mind is to pull you the other. But this is, after all, exactly what the opera has been about: motives, decisions, choices, endgames and, in the end, unanswered questions.

What Venables and Huffman have given us in Denis & Katya is an opera which defies the form. In doing so, it goes substantially further than 4.48 Psychosis did. It is a tragedy, but its eponymous characters never appear at all. The audience see what happens but are also complicit voyeurs. And Venables and Huffman are no more nor less successful than others have been in unveiling the enigma of what happened to Denis and Katya, though this is not a major failing. If perhaps not as harrowing as their first opera, it is a haunting and powerful work and, in a performance as artistically compelling as this one, leaves a lasting impression.

Marc Bridle

Emily Edmonds (mezzo-soprano); Johnny Herford (baritone); Tim Gill, Adrian Bradbury, Zoe Martlew, Joely Koos (cellos, London Sinfonietta); Philip Venables (composer), Ted Huffman (Writer/Director), Ksenia Ravvina (Co-Creator), Andrew Lieberman (Scenic & Lighting Director), Millie Hiibel (Costume Design), Pierre Martin (Video Design), Rob Kaplowitz (Sound Design)

Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London; 14th March 2020.

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