The Sinking of the Titanic, Barbican Hall, London / Jakob Lenz, Hampstead Theatre, London / Don Giovanni, Heaven, London
Moving musical memories of 'Titanic', a sodden mystic and a drooling Don make the going soggy
Sunday 22 April 2012
For busy music-lovers, it was a hell of a week: drowned, deranged and damned. First stop, The Sinking of the Titanic. Half-lullaby, half-lament, Gavin Bryars's orchestral piece was first heard in the 1970s. In its current 70-minute form – a loop of Edwardian hymnody etched with the crackle of wax cylinders – it unfolds beneath a diptych of moving images based on archive footage, created by Bill Morrisson and Laurie Olinder. Smiles spread across the moustachioed faces of the First Class passengers on screen. Babies are held up to the camera like trophies, straw boaters thrown in a silent hurrah, while Bryars and his musicians play sotto voce, as meticulous as undertakers.
Far removed from the bombast of James Cameron's blockbuster, The Sinking ... only hints at disaster: the warning whine of a bow against a xylophone, the rope-like creak of electric guitar, a yelp of brass. Soothed by the circling melody and filigree arpeggios of the central string quartet, 1,500 passengers on the White Star Line's most famous ship near the iceberg drowsily, without alarm. Bryars's soundworld is that of an imagined ocean bed where, 100 years on, the hymn tune “Autumn”, the last music heard on the Titanic, still reverberates, still consoles.
Jakob Lenz, Wolfgang Rihm's 1979 chamber opera on the schizophrenic poet who sought spiritual relief in rural Alsace in 1778, affords no such benediction. Plagued by visions (the baptism and drowning of a child) and aural hallucinations (a sextet of singers in the imagined folk costumes of the Petite Camargue), Andrew Shore's Lenz stutters, roars, flutes and howls in solitary anguish.
The stage of the Hampstead Theatre is a size too small to contain the marshlands of Sam Brown's ENO production, the first in English. Annemarie Woods's set design is a splashy, reedy hell for Lenz, now up to his ankles, now up to his neck in water.
Conducted by Alex Ingram, the score bristles with mosquito trills from the three cellists, blistered recitatives for synthesised harpsichord and the brutal slap and knock of percussion. Buxtehude and Praetorius can be heard in the polychoral shreds of wind and brass and the charred distortions of Ein feste Burg. Jonathan Best and Richard Roberts have little opportunity to make sympathetic characters of the kindly pastor Oberlin and fellow writer Kaufmann, for Rihm's focus is entirely on Lenz's loud, lonely chaos.
Dominic Gray's gender-bending adaptation of Don Giovanni in Heaven, the nightclub, opens with an amplified blast of Pomp and Circumstance and the naughty-nanny voice of Margaret Thatcher. The year is 1987, club-owner Don (Duncan Rock) is the cocksure libertine, blessed with superhero pecs, vocal suavity and a taste for bi-curious beefcake. Instead of Elvira we have Eddie, a masochistic yuppie. Anna becomes Alan, a closeted Young Conservative whose cover is sloaney Olivia and whose mother replaces the Commendatore.
Ensembles and arias are cut like cocaine, reassigned or discarded, while the Act I finale is rescored by Erasure's Vince Clarke, then reclaimed by Colin Pettet's 10-piece orchestra. When Petra returns from the dead, she bursts out of a poster for The Phantom of the Opera. Damnation is not Aids but dementia, as Don sits dribbling in his dressing-gown, attended by a cute male nurse. Ranjit Bolt's libretto is waspish, demotic, giocoso. (Hampstead Heath and Clapham Common replace the usual venues in Leo's “catalogue” aria.) Does it work? If everyone sang as well as Rock, it might. What defines Mozart's hell-raiser is the chasing, not the skirt.
'Jakob Lenz' (0871 911 0200) to Fri. 'Don Giovanni': dongiovannitheopera. com, today at 5pm, 23, 29 & 30 Apr
Nicola Benedetti, right, is the soloist in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's concert of music by Gluck and Rameau, and Vivaldi's Il Grosso Mogul and The Four Seasons, with Christian Curnyn at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (Thu), City Halls, Glasgow (Fri). Jonathan Kent's new ENO production of The Flying Dutchman opens at the Coliseum, London (Sat). Edward Gardner conducts.
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