Shadowtime, Coliseum, London

When Walter met Karl, Groucho and Adolf
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The Independent Culture

The subject of Shadowtime is the death of Walter Benjamin: philosopher and semiotician of the Frankfurt School. Benjamin died, by his own hand, while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Plenty of material there, then. But librettist Charles Bernstein has rejected tragic narrative in favour of an extended triptych in which chorus, soloists, and a piano-playing lecturer (Nicholas Hodges) voice their own thoughts in several different languages, often simultaneously.

Bernstein enjoys playing with words, much as some children enjoy pulling the wings off flies. Hence we get 17 anagrams of Walter Benjamin (I'm a lent barn Jew, Arab Jew melt in, Brain mental Jew etc), a homophonic translation of Heine's Die Lorelei, and a long choral passage in which the consonants of adjacent words are emphasised over the vowels between them. He also favours puns. A two-headed Marx interrogates Benjamin; one of which belongs to Karl, the other - you guessed it - to Groucho. Sadly, Karl is not very bright and Groucho is not very funny. Hitler, who also makes an appearance, muses over issues of solitude and connection during a rondo. Einstein (passacaglia) and Pope Pius XII (madrigal) also feature. It should be brilliant. It should be an operatic Insignificance. But I have never read such a pretentious libretto, and that includes The Last Supper.

Ferneyhough's score is a curious blend of Darmstadt bloody-mindedness and icy beauty. Characterisation is absent. The playing of the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam was, to a note, remarkably elegant. The sections for piano and speaker are largely written so that the pianist speaks between the notes, like Noël Coward declaiming Kurt Schwitters to early Stockhausen. The semi-concerti for guitar (Mats Scheidegger) were exquisite. But even a "thought opera" has to be sung. Ferneyhough writes unkindly for voices. Then again, the threadbare voices of the Neue Vocalisten Stuttgart did little to inspire kindness.