Tynan Shines Brightest in Britten’s Illuminations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Debussy, Adams: Sarah Tynan (soprano). Aurora Orchestra /Nicholas Collon (conductor), Aldeburgh Festival 2016, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk 10.6.2016. (MH)

Soprano Sarah Tynan in Illuminations which opens Aldeburgh Festival on 10, 12 & 13 June 2016. Photo by Mark Allan
Sarah Tynan in Illuminations (c) Mark Allan

Circus ensemble: Sam Cater, Tiago Fonesca, Craig Gadd, Francesca Hyde, Eric McGill, Aislinn Mulligan, Lucie N’Duhirahe, Angeliki Nikolakaki, Matthew Smith


Director: Struan Leslie   (Devised by Struan Leslie and the ensemble)
Lighting designer: Chris Davey
Set and Costume designer: Gary McCann

Benjamin Britten: Young Apollo, Op. 16
Claude Debussy, arr. Richard Tognetti: String Quartet in G minor. Op.10
Britten: Reveille for violin and piano
John Adams: Shaking and Trembling from Shaker Loops
Britten: Les Illuminations Op.18

The Aldeburgh Festival of 2016 brings a musical celebration using birds, circus and pianos as its main theme elements. The centrepiece is a newly commissioned staged work Illuminations which opened the Festival. A combination of Britten’s song cycle, Rimbaud’s poetry and circus artistry, it was an interesting new mix of music, poetry and movement. Additional musical elements included works by Debussy and John Adams.

It could be said that the musical items were strange bedfellows, but programme notes by conductor, Nicholas Collon suggest similarities in the string writing for Les Illuminations with the string quartet of Debussy and Young Apollo clearly a precursor for Antique – song 3 of Les Illuminations. Useful references, in what could be a confusing mix.

The capacity audience in the Snape Concert Hall were treated to an open stage presentation. A series of Utility style wooden cupboards, bookcases and wardrobes with the occasional bed lamp, a clock and a precariously balanced bed made up the set designed by Barry McCann with the orchestra starting stage right of the action. Skilfully lit by Chris Davey, the set gave the impression of a city of skyscrapers in silhouette on a dreamy evening.  The setting became clearer when Tynan in a striking electric blue dress with a darker over mantle, climbed into the suspended bed to take her slumber.

From the opening bars the circus troupe covered every space on the stage using their acrobatic skills, moving the set or lurking menacingly when not directly involved in the action. Sometimes a dream and maybe a nightmare for the sleeping Tynan.

The orchestra, dressed in grey, started a little unsteadily in the opening of Britten’s Young Apollo but soon settled, working very hard,  perhaps slightly over-dramatic, in order to highlight the staging. The accompanying action opened with solo hat juggling  and concluded with a more successful sparkling aerial hoop sequence.

During a break for re-setting the orchestra position, Collon was carried, amusingly stiff as a statue, downstage. Then came the Debussy String Quartet. In the fuller Tognetti arrangement the original delicate texture is traded off to give  a more resonant and lush sound which suited the stage action.

The quartet, described as rhythmic, agile and subtle, was well matched by the performers skilled equilibristics, the climax being the lifting from above and cradling of a sleeping Tynan. Breathtaking for all, especially the singer who hardly flinched during this sensual embrace and final suspension.All of the action was enhanced by the use of skilful cross lighting, well matching the mood and keeping the  slightly mystical, dreamy atmosphere. Peter Harrison production electrician & programmer should be highly commended for his seamless cross fades.

A fur coated lady on the aerial silks was to transport us into an almost hypnotic world for Britten’s Reveille, distressing in her twisting and turning interpretation of a twilight haze before the rigours of facing the morning. This was perhaps the most easily acceptable interpretation of the music so far.

The repetitive lines in Adam’s Shaker Loops gave mesmerising repetitions which were well matched by the 2 “Innovative Trapeze” artistes. At times the asynchronous swinging of the duo brought the conductor close to a scalping. However, both double bass and conductor were later seen to  join in the corde lisse work, swinging, obviously caught up in the circus of events.

The climax of the evening came when Tynan finally arose from her sleeping bed. Her mellifluous, bell like soprano soared into the auditorium in Fanfare, sparkling brighter than anything that had preceded. On being lowered to the stage floor her electric blue dress stood out among the drab garb of her protagonists intent on enveloping her in their writhings for Villes. Her vocal colour and control was never hindered by her bodily attitude even when fully extended on tiptoe and arms outstretched above.

Appropriately, an acrobatic Pan made an appearance in furry pantaloons for Antique, the living image from her earlier dream and here part of Rimbaud’s Surrealist poetry. When the singer wished to be Queen – “Mes amis, je veux qu’elle soit reine” the addition of a matching Elizabethan collar to her dress made a larger than life character for the remainder of the cycle. Being Beauteous brought another costume coup in the form of a glistening silver character, most dynamic in movement – hand walking and balancing – against a dark background and front lit. (see photograph).

Finally, Tynan completed the performance with fine vocal brilliance – Departure, whilst being slowly hoisted heavenward in a hoop, disappearing in the blackout on the last chord – a real coup de théâtre.

The layering of contemporary circus performance with classical music is a very interesting concept worthy of much praise. Director Struan Leslie had decided against dance in favour of circus  which would allow a vertical dimension to the performance. His programme notes also refer to “Les Illuminations connecting upward to a dream-like territory.”

Britten repeats the Rimbaud phrase “I alone hold the key to this wild spectacle.” Perhaps the director had this in mind.  Sometimes the circus element was distracting and seemed not to add to the musical experience. Dance choreography may have enhanced the experience after all?

Overall, this was a breathtaking spectacle and the opportunity to hear a wonderful mixture of music, the highlight being the vocal performance of Tynan and her considerable bravery in the air.

Martyn Harrison

The Aldeburgh Festival 2016 runs until the 26 June. www.aldeburgh.co.uk


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