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Michael NYMAN (b.1944)
Facing Goya – An opera in four acts (2000)
Libretto by Victoria Hardie
Craniometrist 1/ Eugenicist/Art Critic 1/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.
WARNER CLASSICS 0927 45342-2 [2 CDs -71’56/ 61’54]

I have to say at the outset that I did not reach the same conclusions, after listening to this work, that the previous reviewer for this site did. This four act opera is excellently played, recorded and packaged (full libretto and expansive, multi-author notes included), as you would tend to expect from Warner Classics these days, but also addresses some highly pertinent and relevant issues of today through an ingeniously conceived time-travelling storyline. It is a tribute to Michael Nyman (and of course his librettist) that he is able to rebut those who accuse him of triteness and (over?) commerciality with a scenario, related through highly listenable and often gripping music, that sets the moral miasma which characterises the "new" eugenics within a centuries old context. Along the way we encounter the great Spanish painter Goya, Hitler and a host of inter-related and generally dubious ideas (the line "Goya saw Hitler before Hitler saw Goya!" will remain in my memory for some time).

I would concur that anyone who totally detests the Nyman style of composition, i.e. the repetitive and often high velocity ostinati, the chugging, squelching(?) brass (especially sax) may not find much (other than perhaps the fascinating storyline) to grip them here but, for the rest of us, there is a great deal to admire, even if it has to be admitted, the music, in the last analysis, does not consistently reach the heights of what I regard as his (mostly instrumental) masterpieces, e.g. Where The Bee Dances, MGV and, of course, The Piano Concerto (the Argo disc containing the latter two pieces original recordings was probably the most played disc, for nostalgic British reasons as well as musical ones, during my self-imposed exile in Bahrain in the mid 90s - encapsulating just as much as VW, in its own way, the spirit of the much missed landscape and culture). That said, it is well worthy of your attention, and certainly stands up well when compared to say The Civil Wars of Philip Glass.

The brooding melancholia of the Prelude evolves into the powerful Dogs Drowning in Sand to launch Act 1 with a real sense of purpose. The remainder of this act and Act 2 are largely concerned with Goya himself (and the posthumous history of his various body parts!) and a range of contentious eugenics-related ideas, e.g. those of Galton (much beloved of the Nazis) - "Just because Goya was a fat Spaniard who liked chocolate does not make him a burglar" is a typical lyric from a passage which acts as a critique on the supposed link between genetics and crime. While the first disc, wherein the first two acts are contained, has its fair proportion of the usual Nyman musical rumbustiousness, there are also several moments of quite beautiful and contemplative music (those who know the works mentioned above, especially MGV, and others like Strong on Oaks…, will be (but will not need to be!) reminded that Nyman does indeed possess such a musical alter-ego to the more publicly renowned and displayed one).

The remaining two acts (on disc two) continue in the same vein but perhaps with an even greater emphasis on lyricism and restraint - the subject matter here is very much more of the present day though, with reference to genomes and cloning (and their commercial exploitation and moral neutrality(?)). It is difficult to do full justice to the intelligence and depth with which these topics (burning issues?) are covered without resorting to quoting huge chunks of the libretto. As the opera began, so it finishes, with a great surge of what can only be called emotional power, distilled perhaps from the extremity of the inspirations from which it was drawn. The portentous Dogs Drowning in Sand (named for one of Goya's sketches - included in the booklet) makes a temporary reappearance, after a section (about cloning) entitled How can you be so stupid, with the last words left to Goya himself - "I don't need to prove that I am human. It's there for all to see. You blind bankers wear masks of greed. Some artists go naked so others are freed...".

This work, premiered, rather appropriately, in Santiago de Compostela, is probably Nyman's most important, certainly if we are talking not purely in musical terms. I'd like to view it as a pilgrimage of conscience against some of the more horrific visions of the future "progress" has to offer us, cast in the knowledge of past atrocities of rather too similar provenance. This should be required listening (and the libretto required reading) for every politician, scientist, teacher etc. It revisits themes Nyman has touched on before (Act 3 quotes from the composer's own theme to the sci-fi movie Gattaca - the name comes from a sequence of bases in the genetic code!) but goes far beyond in making a real statement about issues that ought to be being discussed far more than they are at present. The whole package is a fascinating document and, as well as the words in four languages and numerous relevant illustrations, it contains excellent articles by Robert Worby (on Nyman's historical context - as the coiner of "minimalism" etc.), the composer himself (on the opera's genesis) and a Dr. Neve of the Wellcome Trust (on the science behind the opera). To sum up the message at work here, I'll reproduce a text from the booklet, itself drawn from the end credits of Gattaca:- "There is no gene for the human spirit".

Neil Horner



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