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Jean-Philippe Calvin – La Cantatrice Chauve (The bald-headed PrimaDonna)

Tête à Tête Opera Festival
Riverside Studios, London W6

16 August 2007

Following a highly enjoyable visit to earlier performances at this Festival, Musical Pointers was tempted back to sample more of these appetising tasters of cutting edge opera.

Our evening began with extracts from Jean Philippe Calvin’s La Cantatrice Chauve (the Bald Prima Donna), a work which is already headed for an impressive line-up of venues in Aix en Provence, Paris and Vienna. 

The libretto is drawn from Eugene Ionesco’s first play, a step back in time for older members of the audience to those heady days, more than half a century ago, when “Theatre of the Absurd” was emerging as an exciting and entertaining new movement.    Ionesco was fascinated by the absurdity of language and in this play he creates two cloned couples, whose conversations drift through a series of non sequiturs.   

Under the direction of Bill Bankes-Jones and with Tim Meacock's surrealist designs, the couples alternately took their places in the matching armchairs and it migrated comfortably to a musical setting.  The cast of four ( Alison Bell and Jeremy Huw Williams as the Smiths and Rachel Nichols and Daniel Norman as the Martins) really entered into the spirit of the piece and caught the sense of banality to perfection. 

The play is written as a loop with a "da capo" instruction to repeat the dialogue with the speakers to be reversed.  Live Electronics were introduced for the repeat to punctuate and accentuate the randomness of the words, and on an audience show of hands, was voted the stronger version.

The “Main”  course of the evening was a multimedia performance entitled Broken Voices in which fractured and fragmented film projections, which gradually resolve into recognisable footage, are combine with Linda Hirst’s vocalise and Ian Dearden’s electronic mixing provide a unique sound journey through the music of Monteverdi.

This was improvised music making of the highest order, gentle and seductive – I could have listened happily for much longer than the time span allotted.

The programme was rounded off with an even more avant garde soundscape adventure, but sadly time and lengthy homeward journeys prevented us remaining.

Serena Fenwick

See also: http://www.enotes.com/bald-soprano/ionescos-bald-prima-donna

Debussy – The Fear of Roderick Usher
Work in Progress – Conceived by Andrew Leverson

Robert Gildon – Roderick Usher
David Menezes – The Doctor
Benjamein Seifert – The Friend
Elizabeth Toye – Madeleine
Celia Adams & Danny Lee Wynter – Actors
James Young - Piano

Tête à Tête Opera Festival Riverside Studios, London W6 26 August 2007

For the last ten years of his life Debussy worked spasmodically on an opera derived from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher but a satisfactory way to transform the mounting horror of a story, told in the first person, into a dramatic narrative continued to elude him.  At his death all that remained were a series of fragments and sketches.

Combining these to make a performable work is a project that has been attempted on a number of occasions.  At Bregenz in 2006 the opera was prefaced by a ballet set to Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune and Jeux, the latter having been composed by Debussy during the period he was working on Usher.  The ballets sequences come first, successfully creating the eerie atmosphere of Poe’s story and the switching between the double cast of dancers and singers is very cleverly managed. 

For Tête à Tête, Andrew Leverson took a different approach, significantly changing the title to The Fear of Roderick Usher.  Debussy is his focus: “a portrait of the mind of a man struggling to get somewhere in his music” interspersing sung extracts from the opera with readings from the composer’s letters  in which he speaks of the “oppressive stillness of time” and the work appearing to be a composition by “a Debussy he no longer knew or recognised'.

Leverson puts the composer on stage with his creation – in one very effective moment he views it through an imaginary mirror.  Parallels are drawn between Usher’s mental and physical deterioration and that of Debussy’s declining health, and horror at the events of World War I. This presentation was highly successful building a general feeling of malaise into an atmosphere of claustrophobic fear and unspecified evil.

Good cast of young singers and a fine pianist had been assembled.  Their singing was stylish and their acting was highly polished - I spoke afterwards to a member of the cast who commented that the thoroughly miserable weather during the rehearsal period had certainly contributed to the general feeling of gloom.   Extracts from the letters were spoken in translation, but the sung extracts were in French and it was too dark in the Studio theatre to read the translations and notes provided.

See also MP's review of recently released and highly recommendable DVD of the Bregenz production
[Capriccio DVD 93 517]

Strauss,  Schoenberg, Berg
Dreamlives:  A Freudian Fantasy

Director – Sebastian Harcombe
Julia Sporsen – Soprano
Sergey Rybin – Piano

This was a fantasy scenario of a young Vienese widow reliving in memory and dream the physical and emotional course of her marriage.     

With the aid of minimum props Julia Sporsen brought the scenario to life in a faultless display of presentation and timing, whilst singing a continuous sequence of 17 songs by Strauss, Berg and Schoenberg.   She is an extremely versatile singer whom I have heard, with equal pleasure, sing pieces from the Bel Canto repertoire and as Tchaikovsky’s innocent heroine, Iolanta.   Here she adopted an earthy and sensual manner, hinting at something more sinister lurking below the surface of her dreams. 

Sergey Rybin’s playing was sensitive and together they made a very fine duo team.

Serena Fenwick

Two notable productions, the Debussy still needing some development, but already planned for further presentations.

Sporsen's realisation of Harcombe's concept lieder staging was an astonishing tour de force of which all concerned should be proud. But once again, translated texts were available only on entering the theatre just before it started, and the auditorium was punged into darkness! However, it was so riveting that (exceptionally) I was happy to look and listen in ignorance...

That this would happen should have been warned well in advance and the texts sheets for both events should have been supplied when tickets were bought or collected at the box office. [Editor]