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  Robert Fokkens – Flights into Darkness: Tom Frankland (actor) Jakob Fischert (piano) Tête á Tête Opera Festival, Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London 30.7.2009 (CR)

The annual Tête á Tête opera festival has become one of the highlights of London’s summer musical calendar, presenting a diverse range of new operatic works from sketches of works in progress to final products. Presenting between 3 and 6 operas each day, this year’s festival includes offerings from Opera North, Richard Thomas, Tête á Tête, Glyndebourne, Welsh National Opera, Madestrange, Golden Hat Opera, Chroma and Errolyn Wallen, to name but a few, and runs until 16th August.

On the opening night of the festival, I attended the 10pm performance of Robert Fokkens’ Flights into Darkness, a 45 minute piece presented by Sounds Underground, for whom Fokkens is Artistic Director. Previously performed in Oxford, and at The Warehouse last March, this was the second London performance of what was described as ‘a contemporary melodrama’.

Perhaps unusually for an opera festival, there was no singing. Actor Tom Frankland dominates the work in what could hesitantly be called a monologue – hesitantly because pianist Jakob FIschert is an integral part of the proceedings, and his contribution, and that of the musical element of this work, is at least equal in importance to the acting.

The setting is simple; a grand piano is placed on one side of the stage, a chair and table on the other, and in the centre are two mirrors, surrounded by gilt picture frames. These mirrors have multiple meanings within the deeper context of the work, and enable each audience member to have a slightly different view of the events which pass. The opening mood is informal, bringing the audience into the private world of the characters, as the pianist comes on stage, slowly and deliberately arranges his music, pours a glass of champagne for the main protagonist and positions a music stand into the centre of the room, before leaving in order to make his entry with the actor. This unusual opening was at first somewhat baffling, but within the context of the rest of the piece it was an interesting addition, setting up certain expectations (the music stand, for example, in an opera festival, suggests singing) which can then be broken down.

The text comes from Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and Arthur Schnitzler’s Flights into Darkness, with the two texts fused well to produce a convincing whole. We are taken into the world of the actor, as he enters into philosophical contemplation about the soul, matter, the human psyche, actions and their effects. Frankland’s performance was spellbinding from start to finish, creating a believable character who confesses to a murder and then gradually descends into insanity. This was an intense and thought provoking performance which was presented with utter conviction.

The music is an integral part of the drama, and Fokkens’ score helps to develop an intertwining relationship between the actor and the pianist, making the pianist and his music a second character in the story. The pace of the music is well thought out, making extremely effective use of silence and building textures and dissonance as the tension increases. Repeated gestures mimic the cyclic thoughts and patterns of the text, and the speed of delivery of the text allows it to become an unpitched song in duo with the piano. Distorted waltzes and frantic syncopations are all impressively played by Fischert, who portrays the voice of sanity and reason with calm rationality. Fokkens demonstrates his compositional technique through the inclusion of subtle (and not so subtle) quotes, acknowledged in the text (the Tristan quote was particularly enjoyable), and the restoration of tonality as order is returned to the stage after the central climax. The music is varied, well thought out and perfectly balanced with the action; at times it is allowed to dominate, at times it punctuates the text and at other times it accompanies.

There is a clear sense of structure to this work, and although the text is occasionally a little difficult to follow, this is an intelligently conceived piece that has touches of brilliance. The work is dark, mesmerising and enormously intense, and this performance was an unforgettable experience.

Carla Rees


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