wed 29/01/2020

prisoner of the state, Barbican review - beauty, but where is the drama? | reviews, news & interviews

prisoner of the state, Barbican review - beauty, but where is the drama?

prisoner of the state, Barbican review - beauty, but where is the drama?

David Lang's efficient homage to Beethoven can't eclipse the original

The Assistant (Julie Mathevet) fights to save The Prisoner (Jarrett Ott)BBC/Mark Allan

You can see the temptation. With three different versions and four different overtures to choose from, as well as all that spoken dialogue to cut, substitute or omit, Beethoven’s Fidelio has always been a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of opera – a work, like Hamlet, that we shape and reshape in our own image. With so much agency available, so many fissures and footholds in this troubled piece, perhaps it was inevitable that someone would go all the way, jettison the score entirely and start from scratch.

This is exactly what Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang has done. His prisoner of the state takes “the skeleton of Fidelio” and builds an entirely new work from it. What remains is clothed in a fresh score, through which we can still trace the outline of Beethoven’s drama of a wife who disguises herself as a boy and takes a job in the prison where her husband is being held by his corrupt political rival.Key arias and ensembles – a jailer’s homage to money, a dungeon scene, the famous chorus that sees prisoners emerge blinking into the sunlight – remain, unapologetically inviting comparison. But can Lang’s drama solve the perceived problems of Beethoven’s original: the jarring comic sub-plot, the deus ex machina ending, the awkward final chorus praising wifely devotion?

It starts strong. Lang, a founding member of New York’s influential new-music collective Bang On A Can, has an instinct for texture, deploying his large orchestra, chorus and cast with lean specificity. There are echoes of John Adams but also Louis Andriessen, Arvo Part as well as Philip Glass in his generous, affirmative minimalism. The harmonic language here is simpler than ever before, right at the junction of musical theatre and contemporary opera. Amplification (necessary if smaller voices aren’t to be crushed under the motoric force of the on-stage orchestra) seems a shame though, de-humanising an opera that’s all about humanity stripped down to its naked essence.There’s a guttural energy to Lang’s stamping, punching chorus writing, a frank simplicity to The Assistant’s opening aria “I was a woman once” and a wonderful, unexpected camp to The Governor’s “It is better to be feared than to be loved”, its sinuous, ingratiating vocal lines shadowed by a slinky oboe – soliloquizing, cabaret-style. But there’s a problem with the structures that underpin it all. Lang’s opera is built over ostinati. Tense, terse little patterns become eloquent and rich through repetition and textural layering, building up from fragments into large-scale forms. But it’s a one-size-fits-all blueprint that, for all its varied embellishments, can’t quite sustain 75 minutes of drama. We get juxtaposition when what we need is development, beauty when what we need is rage.The work is well served by this European premiere. Director Elkhanah Pulitzer’s efficient production (all Guantanamo jumpsuits and barbed wire) transfers complete from New York along with some of the original cast. Julie Mathevet’s chameleon-soprano gives us both child and woman, most moving in its unworked lower register, while Alan Oke (pictured above with Mathevet and Ott) coaxes and croons his way through The Governor’s quiet sadism. Davone Tines impresses as The Jailer, a darker, more cynical figure than Beethoven’s simple Rocco, and Jarrett Ott does what he can with the limited loveliness of The Prisoner’s music. Ilan Volkov draws a taut, controlled account from the BBC SO and the superb chorus bringinh together the men of the BBC Singers and young artists from Guildhall.

But is it enough? Certainly not to banish memories of Beethoven at his best: the unsettling timpani rumble in the dungeon scene and Florestan’s ecstatic musical release, Leonore’s “Abscheulicher!”, Act I’s mesmerising quartet. Lang’s self-fashioned libretto – simplicity too often straying into banality, its borrowed philosophies undigested – offers too flimsy a scaffolding for a work with big thematic ambitions, while the score seems just too pat to hold the story’s many contradictions and questions. Beethoven’s Fidelio is a fractured, fissured, provisional work of genius. Lang’s prisoner is smoothly polished, efficient, finite.

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