The London Premiere of Beat Furrer’s Remarkable FAMA

18/11/2016

Beat Furrer, FAMA: Isabelle Munke (actress), Eva Furrer (contrabass flute), EXAUDI, James Weeks (chorus master), Sophie Motley (staging advisor), London Sinfonietta, Beat Furrer (conductor). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 11.11.2016. (MB)

Premiered in 2005 at Donaueschingen – how reassuringly modernist that sounds! – Beat Furrer’s sound theatre piece has now, finally, reached London. First performed in a large ‘box’, in which about 300 audience members were seated, the musicians outside, the speaker/actress moving within and without, it must have sounded – and indeed looked – very different from its incarnation at St John’s, Smith Square. There was here, of course, no question of opening and closing the walls and ceilings, but instruments and choir still moved around the audience, making use of the balcony too. If a work is not to remain entirely site-specific – in any case, the box apparently no longer exists – then it will need to take on new life. That goes for Parsifal as much as for the Monteverdi Vespers, for FAMA as much as for Nono’s Promoteo.

Besides, one can imagine; as Wagner, Nono, and doubtless Monteverdi would tell us, imaginary theatre is often most powerful of all, or at least differently powerful. A young woman, her roots in Arthur Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else, will adapt in the theatre of our imagination, but will and should remain a stranger to herself, looking in dramatically as well as physically. She will still find herself eventually in the house of Ovid’s Fama, ‘entirely of sounding ore, resonating ubiquitously it hurls back in imitation what it hears,’ but it will always be for us to construct that house, as well as to make it resonate, perhaps visually as well as aurally. Whether I quite managed to do so on first acquaintance, I am less than sure, but deepening acquaintance, something worth acquainting oneself with, will always be a Beckettian case of failing better. I should certainly like the opportunity to do so again.

One of the most arresting, even fantastical, passages for me came with the opening Latin ensemble. The sense of fantasy – not in the debased, modern usage – was as much instrumental as it was vocal, and in any case the border, in the best music-theatre tradition, was far from clear. Highly rhythmical, colourful exuberance played intriguingly with this particular acoustic. The London Sinfonietta and EXAUDI, both on typically outstanding form, were certainly not especially large of number, the latter only eight, but the ‘scale’ of work and performance sounded much larger. At times, one might have been forgiven for hearing a full-scale orchestra rather than ensemble, even if one should accept that distinction. A sense of falling away, of dissolution, more than once put me in mind of Wozzeck; but that was perhaps just me finding my bearings.  Swimming against the tide as the instrumental music sometimes seemed to be, Isabelle Menke’s role as speaker took different routes, sometimes connecting, sometimes at odds. At any rate, and not only because it opens with ‘ich höre das Feuer,’ it proved equally incendiary, paving the way for further musico-dramatic development – if I may borrow so Classical a term – in the wordless second scene.

An intriguing reinvention of recitative as well as Sprechstimme was suggested in the third scene, a pulsating instrumental tapestry both backcloth and participant. Instruments came close to speech, and vice versa. A quite different sound-world and sensibility were experienced in the short fourth scene. I do not think it was just the Italian language that made me think of Nono and Sciarrino, although that doubtless did no harm. A whistling riot of sound seemed to encapsulate the concept both of scene and work. Oh! Vi doveva pur essere, sulla terra di tutti i dolori, un giardino profondo, lontano, silente… One found the silence of that garden in sound, in music, not in silence: a liminality, perhaps, one might compare to Fama’s house. That sense of the numinous could be traced, albeit in different form, into the fifth scene. It was almost pictorial, at times, but the ‘almost’ was as important as the ‘pictorial’. Post-Romantic? Doubtless; for we all are, are we not? The experience remained fresh, though.

In the sixth scene, interaction between actress and contrabass flute solo (the excellent Eva Furrer) stood on the boundary between an acting ‘two hander’ and a post-operatic duet. Are not such confrontations, reinventions, always at the heart of music theatre? Ominous, antiphonal trombones inevitably brought resonances from the past in the seventh, before the final, eighth scene for ensemble, in which the music, the drama seemed to subside, open-ended. It struck a note that came close to, without ever quite ‘being’, or being capable of reduction to, tragedy.

The performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for subsequent radio broadcast (date as yet unknown).

Mark Berry

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