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Benedict Mason, ChaplinOperas:  Hilary Summers (mezzo soprano), Omar Ebrahim (baritone), Frank Ollu (conductor), London Sinfonietta, The Anvil, Basingstoke, England   27.02.2007 (AO)



Chaplin operas ?   Note that the actual title of this piece is one word, eliding Chaplin and operas into a single entity. The only music Chaplin conceived of for accompanying his films was the kind of schmaltzy pastiche heard in cinemas in his time.  In some ways that badly played hack music was closer to the madcap spirit of the films than some of the “formal” music written to accompany the films when they were re-issued with sound.


No serious modern composer would dream of writing music that simply illustrates the film.  What Benedict Mason set out to do was write music that explores Chaplin’s essentially anarchic vision.  The films are just a springboard.  Of course there are obvious pictorial devices. In The Immigrant, the lurching of the ship in a storm is vividly illustrated by music that lurches up and down the scale, each repeat more unsettling than the first.  You could get seasick listening to this for too long. The films are far too powerful for the music to escape some sort of reference to what’s happening on-screen.  Ultimately, though, this certainly isn’t narrative music though it may describe and be described in visual terms.


As I arrived, I was handed a copy of Mason’s libretto. Surprise !  It bore almost no resemblance to Chaplin’s narrative.  Instead each “opera” followed a complex free-form sort of poem split between the soprano and baritone.  In Easy Street, the singers each intone a syllable, to be completed by the other.  The words themselves aren’t that easy to follow, and are literally “deconstructed”.  This reflects the disjointed, jerky rhythms in the music.  Often fragments of words slip across the page diagonally : this is expressed in the way the singer shifts the sounds with pauses between words which fluctuate in volume.  There’s no narrative as such, as if the very idea of a “storyline” were being demolished.  Again and again , the “action” in the text bears marginal resemblance to the film.  Even when strings of words are used in the form of a sentence they don’t make sense.  So, in Easy Street, for example, Mason has the baritone emphasize certain words in a jumble about horse racing, so the names of the horses come over as dislocated entities, “Crumpet Delite” for example.  On screen, they’re playing cards.


Fortunately, we had Omar Ebrahim and Hilary Summers for singers, because they are both very experienced in this kind of material, where so much of the phrasing and timbre is intuitive, and demands a feel for the shape the music is taking.  Not so surprisingly then, at intervals Summers and Ebrahim would stand up and “conduct” the orchestra .  I  don’t think they were really “conducting” because the players seemed to be following Ollu’s more defined gestures, but it expressed the idea that the voice parts operate in a strange world of their own.  Similarly, the orchestra gets to sing, each section chanting different words at the same time.


This is also how much of the music is written, with sequences running against each other, themes running in parallel and in conflict. The resultant cacophony is disturbing.  In Easy Street, the visual images of poverty and violence are prettied up, but the music doesn’t spare our sensibilities.  Audiences in Chaplin’s time would have had first hand memories of being immigrants in steerage and would have supplied their own knowledge of reality to counter the sanitised images in The immigrant. The orchestral writing here is particularly vivid.  Mason replicates the cadences of Slavic speech both in the vocal parts and in the orchestra, as if there were many voices in many languages thrown together.


In each little opera, Mason piles on imagery from beyond the original film.  In The Adventurer, the singers imitate the ponderous kind of voice-overs used in old movies.  Later when vaguely Stravinskian themes emerge from the heady mix of sounds, Summers recounts in detail Stravinsky’s efforts to interest Chaplin in his work.  The music takes on an anxious, obsessive mood.  In Easy Street, the obvious references to hymns gradually distort, sometimes overtaken by jazz like snatches of music.


Music to Chaplin this is not.  On the contrary it’s music inspired by the turbulence of Chaplin’s imagination.  There’s plenty of coy sentimentality in Chaplin’s films because he knew very well that’s what made them sell.  Mason attempts to create a similar sort of anarchic upheaval in his “operas”. How far the music will stand on its own without the films to watch, I’m not sure, but it’s fun.  It was also fun to hear this performance at the Anvil, in Basingstoke, a much underrated venue that I hope will sponsor more unusual concerts like this.



Anne Ozorio



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