United Kingdom Army of Lovers (libretto by David Flusfeder and music by Mark Springer): Mark Springer and Ben Schoeman (pianists), Ben Groenevelt (double bass). The Playground Theatre, Kensington, London, 13.11. 2019. (JB)
Director – Anthony Biggs
Costumes and Set – Anna Bevan
Lighting – Sherry Coenen
Movement – Maxine Braham
Strophe – Derek Lee Ragin (countertenor)
Antistrophe – Samuel Lom (bass-baritone)
General and Third Suitor – Emanuel Papadopoulos (lyric baritone)
Laius – Alexander Gebhard (tenor)
Even I would sound like a great pianist on the Fazioli piano that Mark Springer and Ben Schoeman played, though I declare that the reality is distant from that impression. Clifford Curzon once asked me to arrange for the two Steinways to be changed over from the new one – that Rome’s Academia di Santa Cecilia had just acquired – to the old one they were discarding. We’ll leave that new Steinway to the young lions he said, I like a piano that I play, not one that plays me.
In the first half, pianist and composer Mark Springer sounded as though he was going all out for ‘the young lions’ effect in his Music for Four Hands; for him the piano is a percussion instrument and he doesn’t let you forget it for a second. However the lower part of the piano duo, Ben Schoeman, was busy exploring the pianistic colours – including lyricism – that the Fazioli could give.
Either way the Fazioli was the protagonist of this performance. It had all but bankrupted the Playground Theatre to hire this instrument. The duo was clearly not listening to one another. That always makes for disturbances for the audience. But Mark Springer is the composer of this music and therefore cannot be wrong: percussion is what he wants. Paolo Fazioli certainly did not have this effect in mind when he designed any of his instruments. To obtain the Springer effect The Playground Theatre would have better hired a honky-tonky – out of tune – piano which Alban Berg calls for in the beer garden scene in Wozzeck and Peter Maxwell Davies in Ken Russell’s film of The Boy Friend. It seems perverse to say that Maestro Springer is hellbent on meting out punishment to Maestro Fazioli’s instrument. But that is how it sounds.
There were two pieces for the duo, each of them in three classical movements. The predictability of the successive phrases in these movements was painfully obvious: strings of musical clichés in fact. Now it is true that the early operas of Verdi are full of clichés. But they don’t finally sound like clichés since that composer introduces an unexpected twist every time, whereby, say, we are led to a cadence resting on a major chord which unexpectedly is then minor, or a repeating rhythm which breaks off before its conclusion, or a fortissimo suddenly becomes a pianissimo. This sounds banal in my description, but in Verdi’s hands we get taken into the unexpectedness of the obvious. That, of course, takes genius.
Springer’s opera fared much better, still with composer bashing the Fazioli, this time also with Ben Groenevelt’s double bass, largely called on to play with a nod to jazz traditions. David Flusfeder’s libretto is based on the well-known neo-platonic concept of an Army of Lovers will never be defeated, repeated as a leitmotif throughout the thirty-five minutes of the opera. A dramatic masterstroke.
The choreography of the four handsome singers was to have been by Lynn Seymour, an ardent active supporter of the Playground Theatre, but unfortunately she was indisposed. Maxine Braham was named in the programme for Movement, and very eloquent it was too, with just the right balance between the militaristic and the ceremonial. Anna Bevan’s set and costumes set off all this.
But greatest praise has to be reserved for the director, Anthony Biggs, who breathed extraordinary life into the staging – the very thing which had been missing from the proceedings until the opera started. Biggs takes a distinctly Zen Buddhist approach to his task. The movements of the four men were crystal clear but in Zen tradition, more questions than answers, which we in the audience were invited to answer while leaving unanswered. I felt myself back at a Noh play where the action delivers a challenge to each member of the audience. And the very challenge becomes the opera.
The audience were respectfully hushed in all this. I must add that Anthony Biggs is also co-artistic director of the Playground Theatre. He said he was directing his first opera. Well sir, the opera houses of Europe may not queue up for your profound skills, but the National Theatre of Japan certainly would.
All four (male) voices were excellent. The American countertenor, Derek Lee Ragin, in particular had an excellent vocal technique and would have gained if his part had demanded only more. But this was an ensemble opera and the teamwork was of the highest order. The four soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army all had clear diction and vocal projection: Samuel Lom (bass-baritone) as Antistrophe, Emanuel Papadopoulos (lyric baritone) as General and Third Suitor, Alexander Gerhard (tenor) as Laius, who convinces in his wounds, as well as, aforementioned Derek Lee Ragin (countertenor) as Strophe.
The very best of the four singers came when they sang in perfect pitch harmony, and unaccompanied, and with the leitmotif. This came around regularly like a rondo throughout the short opera. It is this which will stay in the aural memories of audience members. All the mystic Zen questioning which is included in the leitmotif is activated here. And this goes for those who have never heard of Zen or know what it is. And we have to thank the composer profusely for his simple but immensely effective structuring.
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