Elspeth Brooke, The Commission and Francisco Coll, Café Kafka Premier at ROH

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elspeth Brooke, The Commission, and Francisco Coll, Café Kafka (London premieres): Soloists, CHROMA / Richard Baker (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 17.3.2014 (MB)

The Commission/Cafe Kafka - Aldbergh / ROH, March 2014 Photo (c) Stephen Cummiskey
The Commission/Cafe Kafka – Aldbergh / ROH, March 2014
Photo (c) Stephen Cummiskey

Craftsman/Man 3/Gracchus/Policeman – Andri Björn Robertsson
Silversmith/Man 1 – Daniel Norman
Daughter/Woman – Anna Dennis
Pope/Surgeon/Man 2 – William Purefoy
Girl – Suzanne Shakespeare

Annabel Arden (director)
Joanna Parker (designs)
Matt Haskins (lighting)
Dick Straker (video)
Pete Malkin (sound engineer)

These two new one-act operas had been given their first performances on 14 March at Snape Maltings. Three days later they came to London where they will be performed three times before moving to Leeds’s Howard Assembly Room for a performance there. That reflects the excellent idea of having Aldeburgh, the Royal Opera, and Opera North jointly commissioning and sharing productions on an annual basis. Much as one might regret the language in which the statement, ‘Nurturing Opera Makers of the Future’ is couched (eg, ‘The motivation is that in recent years this middle-scale opera sector has changed,’) the commissioners’ hearts are doubtless in the right place. They rightly point to the sad demise, for which our political masters bear heavy though not sole responsibility, of companies such as English Opera Group, Kent Opera, and Almeida Opera; let us hope that this initiative continues to bear fruit as it did here.

It was interesting to note that the programme suggested composers and librettists as creators of equal stature, billing ‘Elspeth Brooke and Jack Underwood’, and ‘Francisco Coll and Meredith Oakes’. Such seems to be part of an ongoing tendency. Though we are not likely any day soon to return to the eighteenth century, when Metastasio would be billed above the legions of composers who set his libretti, it is interesting to note the increasing literary claims advanced, far from unreasonably. Certainly in the case of The Commission, my attention was more or less equally divided between Underwood’s libretto and Brooke’s music, the former based upon a poem from Michael Donaghy’s 1993 collection, Errata. It is well suited to musico-dramatic treatment, the tale of a Craftsman’s revenge upon the wealthy Merchant he holds – we never learn whether this were actually the case – to have abused and killed his brother. Brooke’s setting is resourceful, written, as indeed are both operas, for small instrumental and vocal forces, but in this case supplemented by certain electronic sounds. Jazz is one clear reference; indeed, in a brief composer’s note, Brooke credits Miles Davis’s soundtrack for the Louis Malle film, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. But the sonorities of cimbalom, mandolin, and accordion also make their mark, as does repetition of what I suppose one might call motifs, that repetition acquiring genuine dramatic impetus that takes it beyond minimalism. Perhaps the vocal writing is less distinguished; for me, at least on a first hearing, it did its job, but did not seem especially inspired by voices as such. However, I am loath to say more than that, given that this was a first hearing, and it is more than possible that my ears were at fault. Moreover, the sense of transformation, when the Silversmith’s Daughter finally finds her voice suggests very real genuine musico-dramatic ability; the contrast was clearly (part of) the point.

Café Kafka offered a bracing, sardonic contrast – one to which I admit I responded more readily, but again, that may be more about me. Meredith Oakes may now, I think, be forgiven that doggerel reduction of The Tempest for Thomas Adès, since this offers a genuinely provocative treatment of, in her words, ‘the vertigo and intoxication people feel not just from trying and failing to understand the world, but also from trying to deal with the actual details of their own and other people’s behaviour’. The point is made more than once that the search for coherence may be in vain: a point we should at least consider, even if it prove well-nigh impossible for us as humans entirely to acquiesce. Two men and two women’s flirtations and conversations in a café attempt and fail to make sense of their lives, when suddenly the mood and tone change as well as in this case, as the excellent lighting by Matt Haskins.  In the words of director Annabel Arden’s synopsis, ‘Into this hermetic world comes the inexplicable figure [from a Kafka short story] of the Hunter Gracchus who died a long time ago, but whose death ship cannot truly cross into the realm of death.’ Francisco Coll’s score is bright and angular, rhythm and instrumentation working in often scintillating tandem. Here undoubtedly is a major talent, as was also suggested a couple of years ago at a London Sinfonietta performance of his Piedras. Vocal writing and differentiation were for me more readily apparent here, and a similar degree of resourcefulness, albeit of quite different nature, was undoubtedly discernable.

Arden’s stagings did, so far as I could tell, the works proud. The smartness of sets and actions for Café Kafka was especially welcome, lending a skilfully ‘empty’ credibility to the loneliness and incomprehension of modern social life. Richard Baker and the players of CHROMA were excellent throughout, their incisiveness in the latter opera suggestive almost of lengthy acquaintance with a repertory work rather than a second performance. The singers did an excellent job too. Andri Björn Róbertsson’s dark-toned – and dark of character – Craftsman was well-matched by his scene-stealing transformation from barman into mysterious Gracchus. Anna Dennis proved equally adept in the transition from unintelligible to communicative daughter, and thence to the new world of Coll’s opera. Suzanne Shakespeare’s vocalism in the latter very much matched the éclat of the instrumental writing. Daniel Norman and William Purefoy did fascinating, dramatically credible masculine battle there too, contrast and blend between Norman’s tenor and Purefoy’s countertenor not the least virtue of these performances, nor indeed of Coll’s score, the composer’s willingness and ability to write for voices in duet proving especially refreshing.

Mark Berry

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