Opera Erratica: reverse-engineering Puccini

Opera at Spitalfields Summer Festival

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Opera Erratica: reverse-engineering Puccini
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Triptych, we were told, is Puccini’s Il trittico ‘reverse-engineered’. Written by Orlando Wells and composed by three different composers (Christian Mason, Christopher Mayo and Thomas Smetryns) the mind boggled as to how that would translate into an hour-long production with just five singers.

It’s a measure of director Patrick Eakin Young’s strength of vision that the work felt so unified. Moreover, within each part burned the atmosphere of the original: you could smell the incense in Christian Mason’s Reunion, (hints of the mawkish Suor Angelica;) The Party shared Gianni Schicchi’s erotic and comic hysteria and The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered breathed the oblique horror of Il tabarro. If I add that there were no instrumentalists present, the achievement only grows.

This was naked opera – not in its tendency to undress (though there was plenty of that) but in the ability of a creative team to produce musical theatre story-telling out of the barest resources. Three sonorous female voices breathing drones launch Reunion, while a couple relate their shared history in speech.  The transformation of the young woman from lover to bride of Christ reaches a crescendo in the final stark organum harmony of the nuns, whose threatening, sensual presence dominated. 

If Reunion was musically limited, Thomas Smetryn’s The Party is very clever indeed. A young woman learns English from her 78 record L’Anglais sans peine, whose bland, 1950s surburban characters come to life in her room, archly furnished with Gavin Turk’s drawing-of-a-room.  ‘How do your neighbour’s live?’ ‘Very quietly, they have no motor car’. In a virtuoso display, the singers speed up, slow down and reverse the speech as the woman plays with the record, conversations overlapping and meshing until the clothes are off, and a farcical sex scene ensues on the conjugation of the word ‘to come’. Such mechanistic choreography had a peculiarly innocent charm, and was also plain funny  – not something one can often say of an opera.

The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered concerned a photographer’s tragic obsession with the skyscrapers of Louis Henry Sullivan, interwoven with the figure of the lonely woman in Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room. While Christopher Mayo’s score was a deft mix of documentary, pulsating drones, electric guitar and sparing percussion sounds, Turk’s designs communicated the vertiginous towers rising in projections. The search for his body acquires a strangely gripping tension, with dialogue sung in the style of Adam Cork’s London Road (surely the most influential piece of music theatre in the last decade, though largely unrecognised by the opera community).

No roles were assigned to the singers (whose vocal and physical improvisations formed the basis of these collaborations with composers and writers), but Callie Swabrick, Catherine Carter, Lucy Goddard and Kate Symonds-Joy were all convincing and in good voice, while Oskar McCarthy provided a burnished baritone foil. How refreshing to find an experimental opera executed with such taut, stylish discipline. Eakin Young is one to watch.

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