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Michael NYMAN (b.1944)
Facing Goya An opera in four acts (2000)
Libretto by Victoria Hardie
Craniometrist 1/ Eugenicist/Art Critic1/Microbiologist – Winnie Bowe (soprano)
Craniometry Assistant 2/Art Critic 2/Genetic Research Doctor – Marie Angel (soprano)
Art Banker/Widow – Hilary Summers (contralto)
Craniometry Assistant 2/Eugenicist/Art Critic 3/ Chief Executive of a Bio-Tech Company – Harry Nicoll (tenor)
Craniometrist 2/Art Critic 4/Genetic Academic/Goya – Omar Ebrahim (baritone)
Michael Nyman Band/Michael Nyman
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London, June 2001, March and May 2002 and Snake Ranch, May 2002 DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 0927 45342-2 [2 CDs -71’56/ 61’54]

How you respond to Facing Goya will almost certainly depend on how much you like Michael Nyman’s brand of minimalism. As the person usually credited with coining the term (at least in a musical sense) he has, over a period of some twenty-five years, forged what has now, rather ironically, become known as ‘post-minimalism’. What this means in pure listening terms, I’m not quite sure (maybe it’s just critics, who do love ‘tags’). What is certain is that if you are familiar with almost any of his other scores, particularly the film scores for Peter Greenaway, you will know what to expect. And you will get it - in abundance.

What may trouble some people more is the story, a rather curious, time-travelling concoction that tries hard to address serious issues (genetics, cloning, racism), but constantly gets bogged down in its own cleverness. Broadly speaking, it takes as its starting point the dis-interment of the painter Goya’s headless body in 1888, and uses a thriller-like narrative to take us on a search, back and forth in time, for the missing skull. It ends with the discovery of the skull and the subsequent attempt to clone the artist. All this may seem rather sci-fi-like, but the deeper point is (according to the composer) that the opera is a meditation on "the way scientists, geneticists, politicians and artists use measurement to exclude, coerce and control others". Some may detect a link here with his chamber opera of 1986, the Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and that neurological case study does have similarities with Facing Goya. But the big difference is that the previous opera worked, theatrically and on disc. It had a taught construction, was concise in length and had a musical texture that had a lightness and transparency not always evident in his brasher scores. Goya is too long for its material, and Nyman’s ‘pop crossover’ tendencies are very much to the fore. Thus the opening Prelude, a quite atmospheric, slowly lilting introduction, is followed by Dogs Drowning in Sand, a pounding ‘aria’ that will either grab you enthrallingly, or have you biting the carpet in frustration. Actually, it reminded me somewhat of the wonderful opening counter-tenor song At Last the Glittering Queen of Night, from The Draughtsman’s Contract. But where Nyman’s Purcell-like canons and pulsating ground basses fitted Greenaway’s artificial Restoration world to perfection, here it simply goes on too long and gives the singers a hard time trying to scream over it. The instrumental scoring is also extreme-Nyman, with his characteristic amplified saxophones and solo fiddles dominating the ensemble texture. In fact it occurred to me, as I struggled to stay the course, that the musical structure is not only based on repeated patterns within a single section, but the entire opera seems made up of slowed down or speeded up versions of two or three basic patterns. I know that is a fundamental principal of minimalism, but Nyman really does seem to get away with murder in places.

The other big problem is his refusal to engage emotionally. His music hardly ever allows for this, and it doesn’t particularly matter much in most of the film scores he’s picked. But here I had the feeling that he should pull back, give the listener respite, and maybe allow his characters to identify with their situations. Of course, as with much modern theatre, the multiple role-playing used here hardly encourages this concept, and the overall effect is of a Brechtian alienation, or emotional distancing, from the plight of the characters. It is possible that the staging, which was originally at Santiago de Compostela, would have helped resolve these issues, but the aural experience alone does not help to assess the score sympathetically.

The singing is presumably what the composer intended (the cast are all Nyman regulars) and does involve extremes of range and pitch, virtuosic certainly, but so mechanical and steely-toned as to be hardly an entirely pleasant listening experience. The work has already come in for some hostile criticism; BBC Music Magazine found it ‘cheap and cheerful … with numbingly repetitive rhythms and progressions which make the common chord truly common’. Nyman fans will not be troubled by this, and will probably already have the set. For those who, like me, have been intrigued by his particular sound world for some years, there simply may not be enough variation, or feeling that the composer has moved on, to sustain real interest. The booklet is handsomely produced, with essays by the composer, a critic and a doctor, all making a case for the subject. I understand the set is medium-priced, which may help, but one is left with the nagging sense that this really is for aficionados only.

Tony Haywood

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