The Sunday Times (London)

June 06, 2004

Opera: Mind over matter
Ferneyhough’s debut opera stimulates the intellect but leaves passions unstirred,
says Paul Driver

Post-war composers have not always been inclined to opera. Messiaen waited till nearly 70 to write one, Carter till 90, and Stockhausen till he was in his fifties, though, admittedly, he then wrote seven. Boulez, who once said that opera houses should be burnt, still hasn’t produced one; and, clearly, the more strident a modernist you are, the more inimical this quintessential 19th-century form will seem, even if Boulez has proved himself a revelatory conductor of Wagner’s Ring. Brian Ferneyhough (b 1943) has long been Britain’s most audacious avant-gardist, and if anyone was averse to the form, one would swear it was he. Yet I’ve just attended the premiere of his opera Shadowtime, given at the Ninth Munich Biennale, a production due at Sadler’s Wells next year.

There is no need to worry, however. This is far from being opera in a conventional sense, though it could be described as a dramatic madrigal. Whatever it is, it is in seven scenes and about the death of the German-Jewish cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Marxist and hermeneuticist, bibliophile and prophet of the media age, this saturnine figure could stand as the intellectual’s intellectual. For Ferneyhough and his librettist, the American “language poet” Charles Bernstein, he stands at the dark heart of modernity, embodying its contradictions, enacting its demise. When he committed suicide at the French-Spanish border after being stopped in his flight to America, he symbolised, in Ferneyhough’s view, the tragic failure of the European intelligentsia as a whole to resist the Nazis.

In the face of such a capitulation, intellectuals such as Ferneyhough can only go on intellectualising, though in full awareness of the futility of the task. Hence the im- possible complexity of his musical idiom, in which no detail is too small to be calibrated, no amount of it too large to be crammed into a bar. Whatever one may think of Shadowtime, its launch at the Prinzregententheater was a triumph for his perverse persistence with modernism in its most unregenerate form. It is apt it should be in Germany, where the appetite for such high-brow excursions is undiminished, and even the U-Bahn Muzak will be a Mozart concerto.

Benjamin’s experience at the border is the basis of Scene 1, the only one to offer any kind of realism, an offer declined, however, by the director Frédéric Fisbach. The exchanges between the characters were hard to distinguish, yet Bernstein’s tricksy linguistic permutations were only getting going and might have been intelligible if any sung words had been so in this unsurtitled staging. (Slices of libretto occasionally dropped from the flies.) It hardly helped that the characters were all members of the chorus, Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, in similar red wigs. Benjamin himself (Ekkehard Abele) stood out only to a degree. Very little solo singing takes place, and the choral writing, though beautiful in its wrought way, is rather samey.

Benjamin dies at the end of the scene and his avatars in the Beyond take surprising forms. The wordless Scene 2 is conceived as a guitar concerto (Mats Scheidegger) of fragments so fleeting that only angels could make them out — angels and fragments both being Benjamin preoccupations. Scene 4 is a prodigious solo for a pianist in the underworld of a Las Vegas nightclub, who keeps up an “epistemological” patter as he plays. Nicolas Hodges did this brilliantly, and he emerged with his acting and even singing elsewhere a startling all-rounder.

He was the reciter in the sixth scene, Seven Tableaux Vivants, which bring Bernstein’s allusive word games to the fore but did not here amount to much in the way of tableaux. In the spirit of Benjamin’s friend Brecht, the staging refuses to enchant, preferring bareness — though there is a dangling clutter of quasi-baroque “emblems” (Hitler, Einstein, a Cerberus with the heads of Groucho and Karl Marx) — and the wings are exposed by the end, as though the theatre has become a ruin. The final scene, Stelae for Failed Time, dispensing with the players (Nieuw Ensemble, Amsterdam), is for choir and an electronic transformation of the composer’s voice. A language of his own invention is also used, in case we’d been starting to glean sense from the foregoing. The opera fades into the shadows, ending as self- effacingly as it began.

It is an interesting, all-too- interesting piece — somewhat reminiscent of Stockhausen’s operas — but it desires more than it delivers. Meaning is so densely packed in layers that little can get through. It is an abstract idea of an opera rather than the thing itself, an opera of abstract rather than musical ideas. The latter could be memorable (as in the writing for three clarinettists) and the conductor, Jurjen Hempel, did a fine job. But I came away with too much going on in my mind, not enough in my solar plexus.

Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.