The beautiful and the dead
07/02/2003 - and 4, 5 July 2003
Per Norgard: Achilles and the Tortoise
Simon Holt: Who put Bella in the Wych elm?
Salvatore Sciarrino: Infinito nero
Andrew Slater (baritone), Rachel Nicholls (Bella), Katalin Karolyi (mezzo), Rolf Hind (Piano), David Alberman (Violin)
Alexander Briger (conductor), Cathie Boyd (director)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Almeida Opera returns this year to the refurbished Almeida Theatre after two years in exile in a bus garage near King's Cross. The theatre also has a newly arrived artistic director, Michael Attenborough. But it looks like business as usual for the July opera season, at least in that it presents the of usual mix avant garde opera and new music composed and performed by the usual suspects. The opening set of works was close to being the season in miniature: an engaging new piece for solo piano, a new chamber opera that looked promising but turned out to be either too weird or flawed, though it was hard to tell which on one hearing, and an indefinable piece of music theatre that prompted noisy exits from the audience in the first few minutes but in the end worked amazingly.
It wasn't immediately clear what Per Norgard's Achilles and the Tortoise was doing on the programme. Rolf Hind, the most theatrical of pianists, gave a masterful performance of the work which, as its title implies, is based on two lines of differing speeds. The lines collide and separate, effectively overtaking each other, quite entertainingly, and there is an end, as there isn't in the original paradox.
An apparently unprogrammed duet for piano and violin followed, interrupted when the pianist's page turner leapt from his seat and began to relate the events of Who put Bella in the Wych elm?. This was probably meant to be a coup de théätre, but it fell flat because the audience knew they were there for an opera, not a chamber concert.
The story itself is fascinating and mystifying, the horrible murder of an unidentified woman whose decomposed body was found by three boys in an elm tree in the Black Country in 1943. Andrew Slater as the narrator, who turns out to be the dead woman's son, engaged in a tormented dialogue with the piano and violin, with recorded voices and with himself, in the form of a spooky processed second voice that corrected his account. The narrative turned out to consist almost entirely of red herrings, each with its own frisson and depicted with great clarity in a video and by the recorded voices, while the "real" solution was implied by the narrator's second voice, and by the melodrama of the piano and violin. The dead woman was gradually revealed at the back of the stage, and finally spoke for herself, accompanied by the chamber orchestra, a broken, angry ghost who turned into the tree by wrapping herself in the green train of her dress. When she was finished, the narrator completed the story, and returned to his seat by the piano, and the "duet" continued briefly.
Andrew Slater and Rachel Nicholls as the dead Bella gave intense performances, but it would be hard to say that Who put Bella in the Wych elm? is a complete success. The tabloid melodrama is genuinely horrific, but it is difficult to dissociate the genre from camp or satire, and the fiction of "reality" bursting into a new-music recital is too far fetched. Andrew Slater obviously wasn't born in the late 1920s or early 1930s as his character is supposed to be, and there's not reason why the character would be turning pages at the Almeida today. But there is still something striking in the way that Holt evokes the polyphony of memory which suggests both Norman Bates' Ma and the interplay of past and present.
Salvatore Sciarrino's Infinito nero also involves a deranged monologue and a tormented woman, but it is much more straightforward and strikingly well conceived (though you may have to be Catholic to get it). Sciarrino's music reconstructs, as it were from inside, the ecstatic utterances of Maria Maddalena de'Pazzi, a kind of counter-reformation Delphic Oracle and Italian rival to Teresa of Avila. Born Caterina, de'Pazzi seems to have been a model of orthodoxy, at least once her ravings (which presumably ran in the family) were transcribed and discerned. A sample: "A drop of obedience is worth a vase of contemplation." Her chosen religious name, though, and her periods of glossolalia and catalepsy suggest the coincidence of religious and sexual ecstasy that is evoked in Teresa's writings as well as, more suspectly, in Bernini's sculpture of her ecstasy.
Sciarrino takes the background for granted and uses the resources of a chamber wind ensemble to produce hyper realistic sounds of breath and heartbeat as heard within the skull, interspersed with complete silence, until the voice erupts in an apparently invented language. The rhythm and tension of physical experience is everything, and the effect in the live performance was quite stunning. Katalin Karolyi is a singer who can do almost anything, although her performance here was barely singing, and her voice was a small part of her intense presence, often characterized by total stillness. The production, all dark red and black and spikes, evoked both Christ's crown of thorns and an S&M dungeon. Karolyi's costume, black rubber over red velvet, included a zipped pocket on her belly surrounded by black spikes that suggested both the image of the Sacred Heart and a vagina dentata, from which she extracted a small crucifix. It was all rather more tasteful than Bernini, and maintained the religious iconography without abusing it.
Andrew Briger and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group also performed as one, with gripping intensity.