Lost Highway, English National Opera, Young Vic, London
Freiburg Baroque/Bernarda Fink, Barbican Hall, London
It's soulless va va voom, this sex on a motorbike: A David Lynch film turned opera – heaven for fans, but what about everyone else?
Sunday 13 April 2008
English National Opera's season at the Young Vic opened on a balmy gust of borrowed cool. With a guaranteed audience of David Lynch fans and a run of only six performances, Olga Neuwirth's 2003 opera Lost Highway was no loss-leader. Whether this ultra-faithful reworking of the 1997 movie had much to offer those who do not warm to Lynch's work is another matter.
Opera is not exactly short of the tormented loners, twisted brutes, hopeless dupes and frigid femme fatales that populate his films, nor is it a stranger to nihilism, noir and surrealism. Think of Lynch's version of Lost Highway and it's not the dialogue you remember, nor the narrative, nor the relationships, but the colours, the bluebottle buzz of distorted sound.
Diane Paulus's bold, slick staging had cinematic clarity. The movement was tight, the design (Riccardo Hernandez) Eighties in flavour, with a suspended Perspex cube as prison cell and luxury home. But Neuwirth's fastidious music jarred with the brash visual notes of electric blue and scarlet, the mechanistic bump and grind of the porn on the video screens, the soulless va-va-voom of sex-on-a-motorbike and sex-on-a-car, and the cynical voguing of the party guests. As in the original, neither Neuwirth nor her librettist Elfriede Jelinek solicit any sympathy for Fred (Mark Bonnar), Pete (Quirijn de Lang), Renee/ Alice (Valérie MacCarthy), or Mr Eddy/Dick Laurent (David Moss). Sooner or later, they all end up like summer pudding.
So what of the score? Shreds of Carissimi slide languidly into half-heard lines from a Broadway standard, a Purcellian dying fall, Mahleresque cadences, generic jazz riffs from trumpet and sax, a yawn of slide guitar, skeletal stirrings of percussion, a sudden conflagration of knotted, humid bass, a pregnant wash of ambivalent, green-blue chords. In appropriating other people's songs, Neuwirth is backgrounding herself, but the minutely wrought joins and merges of live and recorded sound are themselves often mesmerising and were, under conductor Baldur Brönnimann and sound-designer Markus Noisternig, immaculately dovetailed.
Less distinctive is Neuwirth's vocal writing. Much of the libretto is spoken, shouted, intoned or murmured, while the stand-out arias – or anti-arias – are Mr Eddy's snarled, whooped and lisped monologues: a bravura mash of sprechgesang, fairground barking and performance poetry. I left impressed by Paulus's stagecraft, Moss's energy and MacCarthy's figure, but perplexed by the experience of spending 90 minutes listening to a composer who seems determined to remain unheard.
Freiburg Baroque should consider a name-change. Now 20 years old, the orchestra has established an unimpeachable reputation in the Classical style – its recording of Haydn's Le Matin, Le Midi and Le Soir is sublime – but plays Bach with less verve, wit and dynamism than an ad hoc band of so-so modern strings. You know you're in trouble when the most expressive phrasing comes from the bassoon, as was the case in last weekend's Barbican recital of Geist und Seele wird verwirret (BWV 35) and Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170). Bernarda Fink's poised, candid, beautifully coloured singing failed to conceal a pedestrian instrumental performance. The ensemble was shaky in the cantatas and even worse in the B minor Orchestral Suite (BWV 1067). Bass-notes were uniformly short, the tempi hesitant, the gaps between movements awkward.
While Wolfgang Zerer's organ solos were prettily turned, his harpsichord playing was utterly bloodless in its brisk, regular spread chords. From strings and keyboard alike, there was no swirl, no punch, no gallanterie, no acknowledgement of the French influence on the Suite, or the Italian influence on the Sinfonia from Non sa che sia dolore (BWV 209) and the Concerto for Violin and Oboe (BWV 1060). Never has Bach sounded so provincial.
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