Classical review: The Killing Flower/Greek, Linbury Theatre, London

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As a celebrated multiple murderer, compulsive masochist, and creator of futuristically ear-challenging polyphony, Don Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613) has fascinated composers from Stravinsky onwards, and they keep on coming. Salvatore Sciarrino’s Gesualdo opera The Killing Flower, now getting its UK premiere from Music Theatre Wales, focuses on the lurid climax of his life in which he murders his wife and her lover, on catching them in flagrante; Sciarrino’s libretto dramatizes the steamy events in cinematically terse, if over-literary, dialogue. 

Sciarrino told an interviewer recently that he wanted to ‘find a new solution to music theatre’, and this work quixotically aspires to that; in Michael McCarthy’s fastidious in-the-round production it comes closer to Noh than anything seen on the operatic stage before. Sciarrino thinks he’s created a new vocal style but, whether by accident or design, what his singers reproduce is a faithful imitation of the Japanese uguisu bird, whose call consists of a single drawn-out note ending in a quick flurry of unrelated tones. And until a few passionately-spoken words at the end, that is all his heroic singers – Amanda Forbes, William Towers, Michael Bennett, and George Humphreys – are required to deliver; their words are necessarily unintelligible. Under Michael Rafferty’s direction the wind and string players restrict themselves to wispy harmonics, creating miasmas which occasionally resolve into ghostly ritornelli. There are some Japanesy visual effects, and the singers pace nervously round each other like exotic birds, but, with its intellectually-imposed scheme, the whole thing comes across as an orgy of aesthetic dandyism.

MTW began their Linbury residency with a revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Greek”, but to revisit that once-incendiary work three decades on is to realise how far it’s past its sell-by date. Its blinkered view of Thatcher’s Britain comes across now like the crudest of rants, and musically it’s another self-limiting exercise. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth makes a suitably explosive entrance as Eddy, and exudes high-voltage menace throughout, while Sally Silver, Louise Winter, and Gwion Thomas bring a gutter authenticity to the supporting roles. But the work trades on a stylistic trick which has lost all power to shock - the contrast between the demotic vulgarity of the vocal lines and the countervailing delicacy of the orchestration. For much of the time it feels like a clever experiment with percussion and string timbres, with added Brecht-Weill colouring. As with the Sciarrino, however, the conducting and direction are impeccable.

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