United Kingdom Davies, Between Worlds (World Premiere): Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera/Gerry Cornelius (conductor), Barbican Theatre, 11.4.2015 (CC)
Shaman: Andrew Watts
Janitor: Eric Greene
Younger Woman: Rhian Lois
Realtor : Clare Presland
Younger Man: William Morgan
Older Man: Philip Rhodes
Mother: Susan Bickley
Director: Deborah Warner
Set Designer: Michael Levine
Costume Designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer Jean Kalman
Movement Director: Kim Brandstrup
Video Designer: Tal Yarden
It must have taken tremendous bravery to take on such an epoch-defining cataclysm as the 9/11 bombings, and it is testament to the strength and maturity of Tansy Davis as a composer that she emerges triumphant. Her librettist here is Nick Drake, a poet and screenwriter. Davies’ handling is always sensitive (it is no accident surely that she scores for relatively restrained forces and that the moment of impact, while unmistakable, is far from a sonic punch in the stomach). Her writing for instruments is highly idiomatic, her ear for scoring at times that of the sensitivity of an Impressionist master. She takes aspects of the Latin Requiem Mass, most tellingly perhaps the “Libera me” and, in the composer’s own words, “weaves” them through the opera, “a vehicle of the voices of the dead to reach their loved ones on earth”. But perhaps it was her evocation of the frozen fear of the trapped protagonists that was most memorable, of moments of time trapped in a bubble of disbelief.
Davies is an exciting, talented composer. I first came across her music on a London Sinfonietta disc (1-2006) that contained her piece neon. Impressive though that piece is, it gave no clue as to what she is capable of. It is difficult to imagine her bettering this, partly because the marriage of her and her librettist, poet and screenwriter Nick Drake, is so powerful. It is amazing to hear that this is Drake’s first opera libretto, such is the grasp of the operatic mode of expression. That moment of stasis referred to above seems intricately linked to his memorable statement, in The Farewell Glacier, that “Theophrastus says time/Is an accident of motion/And surely what he says is true”.
In one of ENO’s “outings”, the cast and orchestra took over the Barbican Theatre. Deborah Warner is an expert director, and the way the scenario is handled is magnificent. The set is divided into three: on the “ground” (the stage itself) are the firemen and loved ones left below; the middle stratum contains those trapped in the Tower, a group of people all there for meetings of one type or another, plus the pivotal figure of the Janitor; above is the sole figure of the Shaman, who, it turns out, is also a Spirit Guide. The chorus enters one by one as the audience also takes their seats; soon, they will sing a chorus of morning, of how beautiful a day it is; the New York skyline is projected behind when the sun comes up. We see couples parting for the day, blissfully unaware of what will come to pass; a young man, afraid of heights, makes his way to the Towers; an adulterous man plays his games. Cell phone messages are projected at the back of the stage in a theatrical gesture that is unbearably poignant.
The benevolent Janitor, the strongest and wisest of all the main characters, is taken by American baritone Eric Greene. He has great stage presence and is a splendid actor. He becomes a beacon of the essence of humanity when it is he that soothes the Younger Man, a person so out of his depth, so high up and with such a fear of heights. That role was taken by the tenor William Morgan, blessed with a beautiful voice and capable of some lovely phrasing. Counter-tenor Andrew Watts was probably the most hypnotic figure, cryptic at the opera’s opening (his statements veering between sung, whistled and a conglomeration of phonemes) and offering a supernatural counterpart to the all-too human emotions at street level and the heightened states for those who truly were, literally and metaphorically, between worlds.
The well-loved Susan Bickley was a touching Mother who sings a heart-rending aria, a lament, that cuts through to the core emotions of the opera. But most of all it was the fact that each singer had his or her place so obviously part of a larger event – a larger ensemble – that the whole became so much more than the sum of its parts. For Tansy Davies, this surely must amount to a personal triumph. And all credit to English National Opera for its pioneering spirit and its championing of the music of our time.