In the beginning?
07/17/03 and 24, 27 July 2003
Paul Frehner: Sirius on Earth
Joanna Burton (Meryl), Yvette Bonner (Geneviéve), Heather Shipp (Hilary), Jeremy Huw Williams (Mayor), Christopher Lemmings (Sid), William Towers (Lance), Charbel Mattar (Baljeet), Daniel Broad (Carlos)
James Holmes (conductor), Jean-Frederic Messier (director)
Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place
07/19/03 and 22, 26 July 2003
Jürgen Simpson: Thwaite
Marie Angel (Biddle), Nicole Tibbels (Blane), Emma Selway (Firk), Aileen Sim (Phip), Omar Ebrahim (Moorish), Jonathan Gunthorpe (Quain), Martin Robson (Wyke)
Philip Walsh (conductor), Dan Jemmett (director)
07/23/03 and 25, 26 July 2003
Jonathan Mills: The Eternity Man
Richard Jackson (Arthur Stace), Tara Harrison (Woman 1), Claire McCaldin (Woman 2), Andee-Louise Hippolite (Woman 3)
Stuart Stratford (conductor), Benedict Andrews (director)
The Genesis Opera Project has over the past two years supported the development of three new chamber operas, selected from an international field of over 200 proposals. Nine short-listed operas were work-shopped, and the three finalist composer-and-libretto teams were introduced to directors and designers. No one would argue that this is not a good thing, or that the Genesis Foundation has not been generous, but reviewers have been generally sniffy about the actual operas, which have had their premieres as part of Almeida Opera during July. Strikingly, all three are about something specific and important, and all three provide the singers with opportunities for superb performances, but none of them sends you away humming the tunes. Almeida Opera has premiered somewhat similar works in the past, of which only Thomas Adès' Powder her face has travelled far, although Gou Wenjing's Wolf-cub village, a co-production, came from Hong Kong and ought to find a place in the repertoire. Both works were (in extremely disparate ways) original and completely integrated music theatre, as are the Genesis trio. With a work of this kind, you have to care about the whole thing, and sympathise with its point of view, to start to enjoy it. Opera these days often consists of the institutional repetition of the familiar, made aurally and visually beautiful at the cost of any edge it might inherently have. New operas commissioned by major houses often try to reproduce the comfort factor by adapting great books or national myths. It can be decidedly refreshing to find brash, opinionated positions in a new opera, even if you don't agree them.
There are still rough edges in the finished works, though. Sirius on earth by the Montreal-based composer Paul Frehner and librettist Angela Murphy has too many characters -- three different sets of dissidents in the drugged-happy city of the title -- and some good jokes emerging from confusion which is meant to be comic but which is often just confused. There is a hilarious Tristan parody involving window cleaning, and a sweet-tempered, ineffectual policeman who seems to be the sole enforcer of the theoretically oppressive law, an endearing performance by Charbel Mattar. But there is also putative satire whose target is too vague to entertain -- there are characters called Arthur Major (the dodgy mayor) and Sid Thatcher, the hippy left to lead the resistance when the charismatic Carlos is lobotomised, and the mayor's wife is called Hilary, one ell; the policeman finally rebels when he is told to remove his turban, although otherwise his name is the only Sikh thing about him. Sirius has echoes of Sondheim's high-sixties flop Anyone can whistle, which also involved a corrupt mayor, French-speaking liberation -- a pair of sexy pie-throwers in Sirius -- and the audience standing in for the populace of the town. Sondheim's next effort was a reactionary turkey, Do I hear a waltz?, but Frehner and Murphy have a light touch that suggests future entertainment.
Thwaite, by the Dublin team of Jürgen Simpson and Simon Doyle, also has claims to the comic, but in a much grimmer vein. Seven survivors of an unnamed global catastrophe meet in a forest clearing and kill each other in their quest for, or to impersonate, the prophet Thwaite. Each character is a type of faith or cynicism, and at the end only the manipulative cynic Blane is left, abandoned by the reflective sceptic Moorish who would rather be alone than form a bond with her. The production, entertainingly if distractingly, presents each of the characters as a vaudeville act: the indulgent, opportunist Quain is an inept comic, the sentimental Biddle a light-entertainment soprano, the militaristic Wyke a magician in the style of Carter the Great, and there is a tasteless running joke about ice creams. None of this seems to relate to the music, which seemed energetic and rough-hewn, Lord of the Flies material, rather than meretricious. But the singers were intensely committed and expert, particularly Nicole Tibbels as Blane.
The Eternity Man is set in Sydney, where its librettist Dorothy Porter was born, although its composer Jonathan Mills lives in Melbourne. It is effectively a song cycle with backing group on the theme of sin and redemption. It works very well in a powerful, vulnerable performance by Richard Jackson as Arthur Stace, a reformed brothel lookout and alcoholic who converted to Christianity and spent the rest of his life writing the word Eternity in chalk around Sydney. But while the programme sets each section in a particular part of the city, there is no sense of place in the production or in the music. Mills and Porter's earlier work, The Ghost Wife, brought the outback terrifyingly into the Pit at the Barbican; The Eternity Man 's more complex urban landscape seems to have a lot to do with its intended effect, but it isn't there for most of a London audience. Perhaps The Eternity Man man should have been produced in Sydney, or Mills and Porter should have been steered towards London's answer to Stace, Stanley Green, who for many years carried a sandwich-board up and down Oxford Street and sold pamphlets which inveighed against lust and protein.