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Seen and Heard International Festival Review
Lincoln Center Festival 2005 (II): Shadowtime (North American premiere), Brian Ferneyhough, Composer, Charles Bernstein, Libretto, Rose Theatre at Time Warner Center, New York City, 21 July, 2005 (BH)
For the unstaged London performance of Brian Ferneyhough’s first opera, my colleague Anne Ozorio wrote an incisive and gorgeous analysis, allowing Shadowtime to penetrate her subconscious and acknowledging that its effects might not be understandable until a much later time. Coupled with much advance publicity here, her intriguing comments made me positively salivate, and further, last Monday’s spectacular evening of Mr. Ferneyhough’s chamber music by the New Juilliard Ensemble only increased my anticipation. I had been thinking about this work for months.
Well, there just isn’t any other way to say it: my reaction, while not 180 degrees from Anne’s, was quite different, and I felt a bit of disappointment, although there were many, many fine things about the evening. In a nutshell: the musical portions are as riveting as anything Ferneyhough has done, but the production, fine as it was, seemed slightly at odds with the ideas he and Charles Bernstein (the librettist) wanted to present.
The focus is on Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a complex figure whose enigmatic philosophy and cultural criticism forged his reputation as one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century. In his notes, Bernstein describes some of the major themes of Benjamin’s work: "…intertwined natures of history, time, transience, timelessness, language, and melancholy; the possibilities for a transformational leftists politics; the interconnectivity of language, things, and cosmos; and the role of dialectical materiality, aura, interpretation, and translation in art." These are high stakes for any artist attempting to depict Benjamin’s world, and further, to portray such a world in a way that an audience can comprehend it.
Musically, the opera is a feast of delicacies, such as the glistening choral writing in the opening Scene I, Level 5, with children’s rhymes dedicated to Benjamin’s son, Stefan, or Scene III, The Doctrine of Similarity, all performed by members of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart with amazing precision and commitment. Costume designer Olga Karpinsky handsomely clad all twelve in coats, pants and skirts of varying styles, but united in shades of deep blue – in contrast to Benjamin, sung by the excellent Ekkehard Abele, seen for much of the opera in a flaming red suit. It must be said that Mr. Abele gave the role his all, fully projecting a range of conflicted moods and emotions, and singing beautifully. And like my MusicWeb colleague, I do find Ferneyhough’s music "beautiful."
Under the taut direction of Jurjen Hempel, the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam was in expert form, capturing Ferneyhough’s microtones, glissandi and extreme registers as if they played this score every week. Mats Scheidegger was the outstanding guitar player for Scene II, Les Froissements d’Ailes de Gabriel (The Rustling of the Wings of Gabriel), in one of several scenes that would probably be effective in the concert hall, lifted out of context.
A giant screen on the back wall of the stage illuminated various stages of Benjamin’s life, or of his internal mindset, such as when silhouettes of tiny puppets could be seen traversing up and down mountains – very similar to the work of artist Kyra Walker, and coincidentally I just saw some of her video work a few weeks ago at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. When Benjamin visits the Underworld, a horizontal panel with red light-emitting diodes slides onstage, except that unlike artist Jenny Holzer’s work this sign has no letters or words, just a buzzing dotted line – a startlingly acute depiction of a state of unintelligibility or nothingness as if the brain had gone blank. This would mean "hell" for a man like Benjamin.
As the protagonist and narrator (wearing a head microphone), Nicolas Hodges helped pave the way for pianists all over the world who dream of enlarging their perspective by acting and being more physical onstage. In Scene IV, titled Opus Contra Naturam, Hodges leads Benjamin’s avatar into the netherworld of Las Vegas, wearing a navy blue suit with a sequined collar in fine Liberace style – that is, when he wasn’t wearing pajamas and wandering around barefoot. Aside from navigating the formidable piano part, Hodges executed a bit of sleight of hand pulling colored scarves from his sleeves, or played while being spun around on a large platform that was swirled to and fro by visible stagehands. It was an undeniably memorable role, perfectly suited to his gifts.
The seventh and final section, Stelae for Failed Time (Solo for Melancholia as the Angel of History) was utterly haunting, with the stage light – here two horizontal bays of white fluorescent tubes hovering above the cast – being slowly leached out as the twelve singers’ voices blended with slowly chiming, glittering electronics. At the end, small lights on the singers’ music folders glowed like two lines of ice-blue fireflies leaving the stage in silence.
A composer friend next to me (who also admires Ferneyhough) said simply, "This just doesn’t work," and I suspect the production again didn’t quite communicate – vivid as it was in many respects. I must ask, too: Is this subject really workable in this musical format? Ferneyhough calls it a "thought opera," which perhaps implies that the crux is implicit in internal dialogue or philosophy – not impossible ideas to portray, but the way they were articulated and made visible here didn’t clarify, although I will be the first to concede that this may have been part of the intent.
At least one minor problem was a physical one: unfortunately the supertitles were positioned unfathomably high above the stage, making it impossible to read some of the texts without glancing above, one’s eyes being pulled upward, back and forth and away from the performers and visual tableaux onstage. Other props seemed to add more confusion rather than illumination. In Scene 1, Level 6, long scrolls unfurl and lower to the floor of the stage, each carrying excerpts from Benjamin’s conversations with Gershom Scholem and Friedrich Hölderlin. Aside from the fact that these dialogues do not warm well to being quickly digested, the words themselves were a bit tiny – I wonder whether patrons seated farther back could even discern what was written. (One listener said she just ignored them.) Other text portions were more successful, such as in Scene III, section 8, called "Anagrammatica," in which the letters of Benjamin’s name are rearranged in an amusing flood of anagrams.
But more to the point: I felt that some crucial elements did not telegraph their importance as loudly as they should have. Charles Bernstein writes: "Opening onto a world of shades, of ghosts, of the dead, Shadowtime inhabits a period in human history in which the light flickered and then failed." Benjamin’s tragic last few hours must have been incredibly dramatic, and I expected to be overwhelmed by his suicide, but the staging, with its deliberate non-emphasis, all but swept understanding aside. Several people mentioned afterward that even having read the extensive program notes, they still did not realize what was happening.
I do think all intentions were honorable: I was never bored by spending time in Ferneyhough’s meticulously assembled world, but baffled? Perhaps a bit. And to be fair, all week I’ve been discussing it – debating intentions with those who saw it, and trying to describe it to those who could not. But ultimately the evening seemed like a partial misfire, and I can’t defend those in the audience whose patience quickly ran dry and who chose to exit (quietly, to their credit). Do I honestly appreciate Benjamin more (or less) after experiencing Ferneyhough’s take on him? The answer is probably "more," but then, the program notes and advance articles about the piece were, for better or for worse, clearer and more satisfying.
Interested readers may view pages from many of Ferneyhough’s scores at the British Music Information Centre: http://www.bmic.co.uk/.