Shadowtime, Prinzregententheater, Munich

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The Independent Culture

In Munich, the British composer Brian Ferneyhough's first opera, Shadowtime, based on the life of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, has received its first performances. Playing for more than two hours without a break, the work's characters include not only Benjamin and his entourage, but also a whole host of more symbolic figures, including a Plato-spouting pianist in the Las Vegas club that curiously represents Benjamin's descent into the underworld.

In Munich, the British composer Brian Ferneyhough's first opera, Shadowtime, based on the life of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, has received its first performances. Playing for more than two hours without a break, the work's characters include not only Benjamin and his entourage, but also a whole host of more symbolic figures, including a Plato-spouting pianist in the Las Vegas club that curiously represents Benjamin's descent into the underworld.

Some of the complexities, and perhaps the problems, of Shadowtime derive from its inspiration in those musico-dramatic hybrids, the proto-oper- atic Rappresentazione of the turn of the 17th century. To conclude that the work is dramatically less than the sum of its musical parts - even though most of its seven scenes were initially heard as concert pieces - may be to assume what, for Ferneyhough's musical language, must be considered anachronistic conventions of linear dramatic narrative. Some scenes could, however, profitably be trimmed.

Parts of the stylistically very disjunct, mainly English, libretto (by the American poet Charles Bernstein and the composer himself) are rather effectively direct when sung, though the penchant for anagrams and other kinds of wordplay palls rather quickly. Even Nicolas Hodges, who appears here as an effective actor and superb pianist, could not save the uneasy mix of speech and fitfully brilliant music in the scene inspired by Dürer's Melancholia I. Frederic Fisbach's production cleverly attempts to clarify the dramatic complexities inherent in Ferneyhough's conception, but some of its silhouettes and black-and-white video, its puppetsand its scrolls of text become mannered through overuse.

A 15-minute guitar concerto that incongruously insinuates itself into the action as Scene 2 is a vivid example of the composer at his most intricately engaging. Yet Shadowtime also broadens the composer's palette. Several scenes, including Scene 3, which evocatively depicts Benjamin's aborted flight over the Pyrenees and attempts to address his central critique of reproduction, are dominated by vocal polyphony that transmutes Ferneyhough's knowledge of medieval and Renaissance choral repertoire into music of affecting beauty.

Conducted by Jurjen Hempel, the singing and the playing of an 18-piece ensemble appeared of a uncommonly high standard. Neue Vocalsoloisten Stuttgart provided all the former (with Ekkehard Abele a hard-worked Benjamin), Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam the players.

Paris and New York are guaranteed to see Shadowtime this year or next, but planned shows at Sadler's Wells in September 2005 are uncertain. Can Britain avoid the usual story with the composer who has always felt himself a prophet fêted everywhere but in his own country?

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