MIAF: The Schönberg Ensemble, The Navigator ~ theatre notes

Sunday, October 12, 2008

MIAF: The Schönberg Ensemble, The Navigator

Melbourne Festival Diary #1: Thursday and Friday

The Schönberg Ensemble, Program 2. Conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw. Instrumental soloists Ger de Zeeuw, Joey Marijs, Sudanne van Els. Vocal soloist Barbara Hannigan. Micrographia by Michael Smetanin (2006), Umo Só Divina Linha by Jan van de Putte (2006), Kammerkonzert (1969/70) and Mysteries of the Macabre (1974/1977) by Györgi Ligeti. Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre.

The Navigator, score by Liza Lim, libretto by Patricia Sykes, directed by Barrie Kosky, conducted by Manuel Nawri. Set design by Barrie Kosky and Alice Babidge, costumes by Alice Babige, lighting by Damien Cooper, sound design by Michael Hewes. With Andrew Watts, Talise Trevigne, Omar Ebrahim, Deborah Kayser and Philip Larson. Elision Ensemble. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre.

Ms TN went a bit wild on the MIAF program this year, with a particular bias towards the opening weekend. And thus events are overwhelming my keyboard: since the Melbourne Festival opened last Thursday, I've seen five performances (by the end of today, make that eight). Things calm down to something approaching sensible next week, but in the meantime take this as an experiment - how much can I see and discuss before my cerebellum explodes in a cloud of splintered syntax and unmoored metaphor?

Or perhaps it is an experiment in the subjective experience of time. So far the tally runs at two performances that polished time to an exquisite needle point of present being, two that made it run like treacle with rocks in it, and one that simply involved a lot of enjoyable banging and shouting, neither treacle nor needle but more a kind of fairy floss. But more of this hereafter.

The Schönberg Ensemble, the first headline act of the festival, was one of the needles. This two hour concert seemed to erase duration altogether. Partly it was the artfulness of its programming, which placed four utterly contrasting works together so that the virtues of each was highlighted by its differences from the others in an exquisitely enjoyable balance. And partly it was its lucidity and lightness of execution under the masterly hand of Reinbert de Leeuw, the kind of play that can only happen when performers have an utterly sure command of their material.

It opened with a 2006 piece by Sydney composer Michael Smetanin, which was commissioned by the ensemble. As with much of Smetanin's work, Micrographia has a heavy emphasis on percussion, with two soloists (Ger de Zeeuw and Joey Marijs) playing an amplified marimba with their bare hands blurring over the wooden bars while tremolo violins spiral dizzily into the stratosphere. It's intricately textured, vividly dramatic work, with a sensual body rounded by a fat trombone and the plucked bass notes of the piano, in which the dense layers of sound are leavened by a delicate playfulness.

The contrast with Jan van de Putte's Umo Só Divina Linha could not have been more skin-pricklingly surprising. This piece is for soloist and chamber orchestra, scoring a superb poem by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (or, more strictly speaking, one of his heteronyms, Alvaro de Campos) and introduced the extraordinary soprano Barbara Hannigan. The poem is an invocation to night ("the Absolute Voice, the Mouthless Voice, / Calling me, calling me, calling me...Like a stifled sob, a snuffed flame, a silent breath"). Van de Putte's setting is a gorgeously sensous embodiment of the poem.

It begins, quite literally, with silence, and gradually you become aware of breath - the blown breath of the musicians, the breath of Hannigan - like the faint sough of the wind on a still evening. Gradually the silence becomes more textured, with the harsh breath of an accordion inhaling and exhaling, the noteless drawing of bows over strings or breath blown through brass. It seems impossible for this ghost orchestra to lift into the world of music, until a faint trill of piccolo signals the universe of notes and, at last, a high, thrilling note escapes Hannigan's mouth. Then musical colours spill outwards through the orchestra like a gradually incoming tide. Breathtaking.

After interval were two pieces by Györgi Ligeti. Kammerkonzert is a chamber orchestra piece scored for several keyboards - a celesta, piano and harpsichord - in four movements. Here language defeats me even more than usual. This is an exquisite piece. In its movement, it is like Octavio Paz's description of poetry, which he says moves from silence to silence, changing its quality. Much of its sheer pleasure arises from how notes scatter under some kind of centrifugal force until it seems almost impossible that they should express any sort of harmony, only to hear them resolve in a new and revelatory beauty. Watching Reinbert de Leeuw conduct silence, holding it taut in your ear until its resonance has leached through your soul, was unforgettable.

The concert finished with a short extract from Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, an opera which incidentally was directed by Barrie Kosky in Berlin in 2003. In the original libretto, the part is sung by the "Gepopo Chief, disguised as a fantastic bird of prey. He comes in on rollerskates." Here the part is filleted out into a solo, and the Gepopo Chief becomes Barbara Hannigan in outrageous black rubber S&M bustiere and long black coat, staggering around the stage on ridiculous stilletos in a kind of paranoid panic.

The text is nonsense language, hard consonants and hissing sibilants punctuated by cries toward riot and panic. Hannigan somehow manages an extraordinary vocal performance while tottering around the stage, at one stage pushing the conductor off his podium and inspiring comic chaos among the orchestra. (De Leeuw turns to the audience in lugubrious despair: "What the hell is this?") It was a joyously anarchic performance, a sharp sorbet which perfectly finished the evening.

It was a lightness of touch signally missing from The Navigator, Elision Ensemble's staging of Liza Lim's most recent opera. Even Barrie Kosky's mischievous direction could do little to lift the ponderous weight of this piece, which plunged inexorably through my consciousness like a brick of uranium.

Here I must make a confession, of which regular readers will be totally aware. I am a language-oriented person, and I find an execrable text an almost insurmountable barrier to enjoying a piece. No matter where I went with this opera, I could not get past Patricia Sykes' libretto, which is one of the most awesomely bad pieces of poetry it's been my misfortune to encounter. It's like a very unfortunate bastard child of Anne Sexton and Stéphane Mallarmé (think a metaphorical stew of blood and dice).

Sykes, whose two published collections have attracted notice in recent years, is certainly a poet much more at home in the concrete world than in the windy abstractions she employs here. This is text that, with a portentousness that made me think of George Lucas, informs you constantly about its Significant Meanings (even winding up with a little lecture about Love) but which never gets close to actually embodying experience in its language. The fact is that poetry, even at its most asbtract or symbolic, must work at some level of literalness - however attentuated - or it dissipates into a fog of meaningless abstract nouns.

According to the program's synopsis, The Navigator is allegedly a piece about "extremity of passion, about Eros and Thanatos, Desire and Death, the gamble of lovers and war". And so on. The inscrutable anti-narrative features a pair of Lovers and a "sirenic chorus" comprising an Angel of History (a poor shadow of Benjamin's Hegelian nightmare), a Crone and a Fool. I'm not a complete idiot, but I could make very little sense of what transpired on stage.

It begins promisingly enough, with a lurex gold curtain framed in a black box rising to a space that looks like a ruined hallway or some other space that is in between, neither here nor there, and reveals two figures in grotesque masks. One plays the overture, a delicate and beautiful flute solo. Then the surtitles began, and my brain began to fall apart.

There is no doubt that there are some extraordinary musical passages in The Navigator, and that it's beautifully executed by Elision and its performers. And it features some incredible vocal performances, the highlight being the animalistic growlings from the Angel of History (Deborah Kayser) and the gorgeous counter-tenor voice of Andrew Watts. Lim's score is a kind of sensual assault, heavy strokes of sound punctuated by delicate lyrical moments, howling electric guitar and woodwind wound together with apocalyptic strings. The effect was, however, oddly monotonal: the emotional pitch was signalled from the beginning, and powered along unwaveringly in a kind of self-cancelling annihilation that after 90 minutes burned out its affect, leaving me exhausted and bored.

Part of my problem was a total inability to understand why it was necessary to make it into an opera. Words aside, I might have found it much more enjoyable as a concert presentation: the opera seemed to me to lack any inherent theatricality. Kosky's direction picks up on this quality and reinforces it inexorably with staging that emphasises stillness, a series of grotesque tableaux that follow an entirely different emotional narrative to the text.

Had the libretto had some intellectual coherence, this strategy might have made it cumulatively compelling; as it was, it just made the whole experience confusing. I was grateful, nevertheless, to have something to watch: Alice Babidge's outrageous costumes, with outsize genitalia and ridiculously over-the-top headpieces and masks, were highlights of the design. There was an absolutely beautiful scene where three performers entered one by one, each lighting a sparkler, which then burned out serially in the dark. I don't know what it had to do with anything, but it was one of the few moments where I was suddenly watching theatre.

Picture: Schönberg Ensemble conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.

Disclosures: I have written several libretti for Michael Smetanin, including a work performed and recorded by Elison Ensemble.


therei'vesaidit said...

Have you ever been to a municipal rubbish tip? Dross, dross and more dross served up in chaos. You have seen it all before but there's something intriguing about huge piles of the unwanted.

But it ain't art. And it's not long before you'd rather be somewhere else.

Unless, that is, you're that rare character who loves tips. If so (and I pity you), you'll love The Navigator.

The Navigator could be an attempt by Mr Kosky to test his audience's tolerance for garbage. Can it be wrapped pretty enough for us to dine on? Is art so far below the intelligent that anything goes? Will we eat vomit if Baz says it's good for us? Are we the idiots he thinks we are?

And what he offers is so bereft of original ideas. Just one thought that is stated and re-stated until you choke: life is a hideous paradox. Got it? No? Then let's say it again, again, again in a libretto which labors from the banal to gibberish in an obsessive's loop.

Am I being too kind?

Tell you what, things are sagging. Let's throw in a dick. Still unfascinated? Let's chuck in blood red labia (if he'd really been working at this piece, Kosky would have animated them as hand puppets so they could talk, then just imagine the profoundities they could have contributed).

All on a set bought at Bunnings. In 1953.

But ...

But what really sticks in my craw is that he's pissing a huge amount of talent up against the wall. These people are capable of the amazing. Musicians who have spent lives polishing talents, singers who can soar and tremble. But here? Fractured on the Kosky ego. Flotsam on a barren beach.

And Mr K himself is capable of the staggeringly good. If you saw last year's Tell-Tale Heart you know that.

I think he's playing with us. I think he's kidding. I think it's time he stopped.

Alison Croggon said...

However problematic the direction, I don't think we can blame Kosky for the libretto...