Visually stunning - instantly forgettable

Varÿse: Déserts Tan Dun | The Gate, Barbican, London; Gluck: Orphéus et Eurydice | Welsh National Opera, Cardiff
Click to follow

After three days of films, concerts, installations and schmoozy discussions between a laid-back Bill Viola, a perpetually excited Peter Sellars and the crisply primped Tan Dun, arriving at the final multi-media event of Fire Crossing Water, the Barbican's Tan Dun festival, was like joining a 1970s love-in just in time for the post-coital herbal cigarette. Don't get me wrong; it was all very cosy (a rare thing in classical music) but by the time we got there everyone was in such a state of fuzzy grace that any questioning of what we were about to see or hear was highly unlikely. So, as the lights went down and the Viola video started, the multi-media fans listened with silent awe to the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Edgar Varÿse's 1954 tone-poem Déserts.

After three days of films, concerts, installations and schmoozy discussions between a laid-back Bill Viola, a perpetually excited Peter Sellars and the crisply primped Tan Dun, arriving at the final multi-media event of Fire Crossing Water, the Barbican's Tan Dun festival, was like joining a 1970s love-in just in time for the post-coital herbal cigarette. Don't get me wrong; it was all very cosy (a rare thing in classical music) but by the time we got there everyone was in such a state of fuzzy grace that any questioning of what we were about to see or hear was highly unlikely. So, as the lights went down and the Viola video started, the multi-media fans listened with silent awe to the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Edgar Varÿse's 1954 tone-poem Déserts.

From an art perspective what followed was a rare chance to see Viola's film accompanied by a live orchestra. Unfortunately, from a music perspective what followed was also a rare chance to see Viola's film accompanied by a live orchestra. Instead of being able to listen to Varÿses's uncomfortable and beautiful piece and think, "um" and "ouch" and "oh I get it!" in the usual way of approaching abstract music, we had a visual Coles Notes. A crash from the percussion equals lightning, a slow groan from the double-basses equals darkness, a shriek of clarinets equals fire, the recorded electronic sections equals man pouring and subsequently dropping glass of water, and so on; deadening the impact of the live performance and placing Déserts in an interpretive straitjacket.

None of this would have mattered so much had Viola not then come on stage and talked to a blissfully happy Sellars for 20 minutes about his dislike of the literal depiction of music on film - though even he referred to the lightning as his "Disney moment". The chat was billed as a discussion but went more along the lines of "Tell us the one about recording the bull-frogs, Bill", whereupon Bill would obligingly discuss the difficulties of recording bull-frogs to the accompaniment of Peter's giggling, which was bit like being stuck in a trattoria with a dull but happy couple as they cue each other's anecdotes.

After a long, head-shaking interval and quick peek at Viola's installation in the foyer (much better without Varÿse) we trouped back in to see Tan Dun's The Gate; a totally engaging, brilliantly performed, beautiful-to-watch work that enthralled from start to finish and left absolutely no memorable impression afterwards.

Bombarded by sound from the players arrayed around the hall, Tan Dun's exciting deployment of diverse elements was great while it lasted. The three leading ladies, Shi Min of the Beijing Opera (Yu-Ji), coloratura soprano Nancy Allen Lundy (Juliet) and Hua Hua Zhang the Bunraku puppeteer (Koharu-San), were utterly compelling. The orchestra played superbly and Tan Dun gave a striking performance; conducting with clipped forcefulness and declaiming his text with bravura. Mike Newman's video-art plucked images from the stage and froze them, leering in to the agonised faces of the three suicidal heroines and up through the bowl of water scooped by the hands of the water-gong player as the women passed into the afterlife.

Tan Dun's mix of Chinese and Western influences is irresistible to any cosmopolitan culture-vulture and he looks good too. But musically The Gate was the equivalent of a monosodium glutamate rush. Listening to a tape of the following night's Radio 3 broadcast, without the benefit of video or costuming or the strange symbiosis of Zhang and her puppet, The Gate seemed like Stravinsky in Shanghai; tonal, simple, accessible, even quite beautiful at times - but utterly dependent on visual elements to move beyond a bland, aural armchair tourism. Maybe we need artists like Tan Dun to regenerate live performance but on the basis of The Gate I'll be filing him under M for multi-media, not M for music.

Over in Cardiff, Welsh National Opera took to time-travelling with an exuberant Baroque/Modern staging of Gluck's Orphéus et Eurydice that mixed Fragonard, Watteau, Blake and Seurat with kd lang. Keeping only the best and most charming elements of Drottningholm's 18th-century deus-ex-machina authenticity, Patrice Caurier and Moishe Leiser's deft, economical and stylish production cleaned away centuries of weigty patina to reveal a fresh, immediate and dramatically cohesive opera.

For an orchestra which had opened Tschaikowsky's Queen of Spades the week before, a baroque opera was quite a challenge. Even allowing for the 19th century Berlioz edition, the sound-scape of Gluck's Orphéus is radically different to most operatic repertoire. I can't imagine the degree of negotiations between a mainstream opera orchestra and Paul McCreesh (a conductor usually associated with gut-string Monteverdi, Schütz, and Handel) but the orchestra transformed their sound, eschewing extraneous vibrato and phrasing in true high-baroque style. McCreesh kept his head well in his WNO debut and delivered a balanced, well-timed, moving and elegant performance.

In Gluck's opera we are not afforded even the brief idea of a living Eurydice; the first scene is of mourning. The quasi-limelight up-lighting of Katerina Karneus's bereft, school-boyish face threw us into the drama immediately. Karneus's vocal performance as Orphéus was not CD-standard perfection (her pitch wavers and her vibrato widens under pressure) but she is a truly thrilling leading actor with an expansive range and a beautiful, generous, human tone. Almost all productions that involve a mezzo in a male role play up the cross-dressing element with more than a hint of "ooh-er" in the stage direction. Here there was not the slightest whiff of Carry On, and it is to the directors' and Karneus's credit that within a matter of minutes her gender ceased to be at all relevant. She was simply a lover abstracted by grief.

For Karneus Orphéus et Eurydice is the perfect vehicle and one that she treats with all the respect it deserves. Essentially she holds the opera - there is not one scene where Orphéus is silent - and her supporting actor is not Eurydice (a pretty-voiced but musically unadventurous Natalie Christie) but L'Amour, who was played with brittle panache by Jeni Bern. Bern's arch 18th-century dandy is the perfect foil to Karneus's grieving lover, and she tripped around the stage with easy confidence and supremely stylish singing. Orphéus is a small but devastating opera and though there are no showy effects pulled in WNO's production - no nudity or psychological shockers - it is a delight to listen to and a delight to watch. Everyone involved, from stagehand to back-desk violinist has done their job really well and for that alone it's remarkable.

'Orphéus et Eurydice', Welsh National Opera (box office 0800 328 2357). On tour to 1 December

Comments