United Kingdom Pascal Dusapin, Passion: Soloists, Exaudi (off-stage chorus), Sound InterMedia, London Sinfonietta / Geoffrey Paterson (conductor). Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 23.10.2018. (GPu)
Her – Jennifer France
Him – Johnny Herford
Dancers – Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Nikita Goile, Ed Myhill, Julia Rieder, Malik Williams, Queenie Maidment-Otlet
Co-directors – Michael McCarthy & Geoffrey Paterson
Designer – Caroline Finn
Choreographer – Caroline Finn
Lighting Designer – Simon Banham
Sound Design – Joe Fletcher
The term ‘dance-opera’ always troubles me slightly – since it is all too easy for works which feature sung texts alongside dance to feel rather schizophrenic in nature and effect. But any such unease was altogether unnecessary here – the various elements of Passion (originally commissioned by the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and premiered there in 2008) are fully – and beautifully – integrated.
In essence Passion is (yet another!) re-make of one of opera’s foundational myths – think Peri, Caccini, Monteverdi, Rossi, Sartorio, etc. – concerning Orpheus. But what Dusapin has created (both music and libretto – originally in Italian – are his) is not another retelling of the familiar story. Indeed, the work is not essentially narrative in nature. It is closer, indeed, to a kind of meditation than to storytelling – being a prolonged (some 90 minutes) and repetitively patterned series of reflections on/refractions of, the theme of separation. There are only two on-stage singers, and the names of Orpheus and Eurydice nowhere appear. In Amanda Holden’s translation of the original libretto (specially commissioned for this production) they are referred to simply as ‘Her’ and ‘Him’ (‘Lei’ and ‘Lui’ in the original), inviting us to ‘read’ what we see and hear as being about all separations of lovers/partners, not the unique separation of Orpheus and Eurydice. In terms of any comparison with the usual narratives of Orpheus and Eurydice (in opera and elsewhere), Dusapin has made one major change. Ruth Mariner’s programme essay quotes Dusapin thus: ‘I wasn’t really attracted to a story where a woman dies, engulfed by flames, sacrificed by the stare of an impatient man … so I thought: what if the woman knew? and what if she suddenly decided not to back toward the light?’ The woman (be she Eurydice or ‘Her’) now gets more control over her own fate, than any of her predecessors.
The resulting work, which adds to the two ‘named’ singers, six dancers, an off-stage chorus of six singers and the musicians of the London Sinfonietta, is a beautiful and powerful experience. It is set exclusively in the underworld – a largely bare, black stage, with one large golden curtain hanging down and a vertical ladder suspended mid-stage, both perhaps reminders of, and in one case the path to, the upper world. The lighting, without ever making it hard to discern the action, is largely dim throughout – there are no melodramatic flames or the like.
The casting of soprano Jennifer France as ‘Her’ and baritone Johhny Hefrord as ‘Him’ worked superbly. Both are well-equipped, vocally speaking, for their respective roles, but both are also young and lithe enough to interact plausibly with the outstanding dancers. Anyone familiar with some of Dusapin’s purely instrumental works (I am particularly fond of his cello concerto and such ‘miniatures’ as ‘If pour clarinette’ and ‘Indeed pour trombone’) will not be surprised by either the quality or the nature of his writing in Passion. Dusapin is a master of (often) slowly moving and (always) profoundly expressive sonorities. Nor is his vocal writing (of which there is a good deal in his oeuvre) of anything other than the highest quality. Given Dusapin’s shifting of the centre of gravity from ‘Him’ (Orpheus) to ‘Her’ (Eurydice), it is natural and fitting that ‘Her’ should have the most powerfully expressive vocal passages – Jennifer France shows herself well able to meet all the vocal demands made on her, singing with well-judged musicality and, at moments, with a startling directness of expression. She also ‘acts’ with her body in powerful, yet subtly expressive fashion. Nor was Johnny Herford (‘Him’) in any respect France’s inferior as an expressive and musical interpreter of Dusapin.
The dancers amplify, interpret, prompt and chorically comment (albeit mutely) on the emotions and dilemmas of ‘Her’ and ‘Him’. One or two people have told me that they found the dance element the most rewarding part of the evening. Though I can understand the tribute that pays to the work of dancers and choreographer, I think such comments don’t do justice to the complex interplay of instrumental music, sung words and moving bodies that is the very essence of Passion. The choreography of Caroline Finn was perfectly judged to fulfil its role as part of the production and was fully integrated within that production; at times the off-stage voices of Exaudi seemed to put into words what the dancers were doing, to give voice to the significance of their movements.
For all the sparseness of the props and the predominantly low light on stage, the directors created some powerful images. One that was repeated, without ever losing its power, involved ‘Her’ beginning to climb the vertical ladder, before being lowered back down by the dancers, like a baroque painting or sculpture of the Deposition from the Cross, and then being cradled as in a Pietà. Such allusions to another ‘myth’ of sacrifice and redemption universalized the work very effectively.
This collaboration between several forces and bodies – Music Theatre Wales, National Dance Company Wales, London Sinfonietta, Exaudi (Music Theatre Wales and London Sinfonietta have recently announced that they will collaborate on a number of future projects) – produced a powerful evening’s theatre, the resonances of which have stayed with me for some days. The musicianship of the London Sinfonietta was impeccable, not least at moments when individual musicians were foregrounded – such as flautist Philippa Davies, oboist Melinda Maxwell, harpist Shelagh Sutherland and harpsichordist Clive Williamson. The oud of Rihab Azar, so far as I could hear, was only used in the closing moments of Passion – initially in a trio with harp and harpsichord (the three plucked instruments sounding extraordinarily beautiful in combination) and then in a powerfully lamentatory contribution – a sound which evoked other, even earlier, myths of sacrifice and salvation.