thu 02/04/2020

Denis and Katya, Music Theatre Wales / Uproar, Rafferty review - disturbing the untroubled monotony of South Wales music | reviews, news & interviews

Denis and Katya, Music Theatre Wales / Uproar, Rafferty review - disturbing the untroubled monotony of South Wales music

Denis and Katya, Music Theatre Wales / Uproar, Rafferty review - disturbing the untroubled monotony of South Wales music

New Venables and Huffman opera as reality TV and new music in a dry land

Katya and Denis? No, just telling their storyClive Barda

Once upon a time writing an opera was first and foremost a question of choosing a good story.

Once upon a time writing an opera was first and foremost a question of choosing a good story. But times move on, and today – as Nicholas Till reminds us in a fascinating programme note for Philip Venables’s and Ted Huffman’s new chamber opera – the medium is the message, and the how has become at least as important as the what

Denis and Katya is a sort of dramatisation of a recent incident (as the police would call it) in Russia in which two 15-year-olds ran away from home, barricaded themselves in her stepfather’s summer retreat, and eventually – after a shoot-out with police – either shot themselves or were shot (depending on whose story you believe). But Denis and Katya never appear on stage in the opera, nor are their voices ever represented. Instead the drama consists of an assemblage of reports, emanating mainly from interviews conducted with a variety of bystanders – a friend, a neighbour, a teacher, a journalist etc – and presented as a rapid montage of role-plays between a pair of singers, complemented by back projections of various kinds: a tweeted conversation about a possible subsequent TV programme on the affair, a film of a train journey (beautiful but slightly mysterious in the context), and labels for the role-plays themselves.

But these are merely the bare bones. What one actually experiences are several distinct layers of quasi-narrative, starting with a long spoken overture setting the scene, then proceeding with a mixture of music and speech through the role-plays, and ending – after a longish (somewhat noisy) silence for the train journey – with a purely musical coda reflecting, I suppose (words not always clear), on the uncertainty of these histories, what Malcolm Muggeridge once memorably called the eye-witness fallacy. 

No less important than these audio-images, however, is the techno-drama, the ticker-tape of the tweeted messaging (marked by rhythmic electronic beats on each word), the sharp lighting cuts articulating the role-plays, the general sense of narrative reduced to a series of sound bites, a whole idiom that reflects – intentionally or otherwise – the world in which these giggly teenagers probably spent their lives and in any case their final days, videoing and live-streaming themselves on the web, shooting holes in their television set and at the police van, even shooting Katya’s mother in the hip when she comes to reason with them. Denis and Katya absolutely avoids judgement of their behaviour or life-style. Yet the sheer nightmare of a world-view that can lead to such a catastrophic abnegation of humanity in the name of calf love is inevitably conveyed, at least to this perhaps too-old reviewer.

Denis and Katya

The piece itself is, in any case, sharp and effective theatre, in the fullest sense a collaborative affair, moulded as much by Huffman’s manipulation of the textual material as by Venables’s often surprisingly lyrical score, the two voices accompanied solely by four cellos, one at each corner of the stage. It’s true that the music only truly takes over in the last ten minutes or so, in an exquisite and moving coda of contrapuntal interweaving of the voices and cellos. Earlier these are only one part of a sound spectrum (designer Rob Kaplowitz) that includes speech and assorted electronic noises off, to say nothing of the visual activity of the jump-cutting, light-flashing choreography, a sort of two-person musical chairs, brilliantly stage-managed by Huffman and his lighting director, Andrew Lieberman. This is emphatically not an opera for radio.

The singers, Emily Edmonds and Johnny Herford (pictured above), are beyond praise. Onstage throughout the 70 minutes of the work, and required to talk, speak over each other’s singing, move chairs and change places to exact timings, and eventually sustain long lines of vocal polyphony after an hour of role-playing, they perform with riveting artistry and without noticeable hitch. The four cellists from the London Sinfonietta are hardly less tested, if more discreetly. The playing seems immaculate, the timing superb.

By an odd quirk of fate, the normally untroubled monotony of South Wales music has been disturbed on two consecutive nights, the Newport production of Denis and Katya being immediately followed by a concert in Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre of new and newish music by the recently formed Uproar ensemble, conducted – to give fate an extra twist – by the former music director of Music Theatre Wales, Michael Rafferty.

Rafferty deserves almost all the credit for the consistent musical excellence of MTW, but I suspect he may find piloting Uproar a different kind of challenge. Yesterday’s concert suffered, despite the dependable quality of the ensemble’s players and conductor, from the very dry acoustic of Chapter’s Seligman Theatre, in a series of works combining live players with various kinds of electronic modulation. This is music that needs help from its environment; in a sense it is environmental music, a fact endorsed by the use of film backgrounds loosely related to the music’s subject-matter but not actually part of its intention. Every piece depended to some extent on either blended or drastically separated textures, but here the sounds rarely survived long enough to be either the one or the other.

Denis and Katya

There were, nevertheless, some absorbing moments and no bad quarter-hours such as Rossini found in Wagner. Nothing outstayed its welcome. The best work, beyond question, was Tristan Murail’s Winter Fragments, a piece whose textural richness and variety of movement came through even this padded-cell acoustic; and for one reason or another I liked all the three new pieces, especially Bethan Morgan-Williams’s Devil’s Elbow, which was unusual among these works in that it moved forward rhythmically, something that young composers find surprisingly hard to achieve even while littering their scores with fast-moving figures. 

Andrew Lewis’s Canzon in Double Echo (after Gabrieli, he claimed, though I couldn’t hear it) was a culprit here, but had some arresting sonorities. Sarah Lianne Lewis’s we watch it burn also stood around somewhat (watching?), but used the ensemble (string quintet plus flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion, harp and keyboards) effectively and interestingly. It certainly didn’t need – or suggest – the tediously woke programme note, consisting mainly of quotes from Greta. Luckily music can ignore teenage verbiage.

Not the least likeable thing about this concert was its organisation. Rafferty had chosen pieces that use virtually the same scoring, so we were spared the endless platform rearrangements nostalgically remembered from new music concerts of old. This wasn’t one of those evenings that feed the virtue by trying the patience. But it would have been so much better in a less virtuous acoustic.

The nightmare of a world-view that can lead to such a catastrophic abnegation of humanity in the name of calf love is inevitably conveyed

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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… "tediously woke programme note, consisting mainly of quotes from Greta. Luckily music can ignore teenage verbiage". Can we assume that Donald J. Trump has taken up music criticism?

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