Thwaite: Jürgen Simpson & Simon Doyle

Thwaite: Jürgen Simpson & Simon Doyle

Music by Jürgen Simpson / Libretto by Simon Doyle / Opera Theatre Company / Cond. Philip Walsh / Dir. Dan Zemmett / Project Theatre, 24 September 2003

This production was unusual in contemporary Irish opera in that it made for a fully engaging evening’s theatrical entertainment; with humour, irony and horror, not to mention sex and death, all leaping right out at the audience. In such a situation it was easy to find one’s awareness of the music receding right into the background at times. But whether aware of it or not, the music was in fact always an integral part of the theatrical spectacle, matching it for emotional and illustrative range.

The story concerned a very motley bunch of people thrown together by an unnamed calamity. Faced with having to cope and being totally ill equipped, they become trapped in a useless hunt for a saviour amongst themselves. This leads to a succession of immolations and murders until only the most sensible few are left.

The whole tenor of the piece was beautifully surreal and richly comic, the drama and humour communicated through the exceptional acting skill of the singers. Jonathan Gunthorpe, playing Quain, was the most outstanding in this regard, and since he had the most important part at the start, set the tone for the whole piece. In fact, when he got killed off the drama sat down a little, with the next ‘leader’, Wyke (Martin Robson), being a less entertaining sort.

Dick Bird and Kieron Docherty’s design and production fully cohered with the dark comedy: an ice-cream van served as a shelter in the woods, the cones as daggers and lemonade as poison. It just shouldn’t have worked, but it did. Aly Fielden’s costuming established the separate eccentricities of the protagonists.

Jürgen Simpson’s score did not seem to be attempting to provide a through-composed unified work, yet by about one-quarter through it became obvious that certain textures and effects were reappearing in developed form. Also, the music and drama, for all the surface wildness, had a classic arch shape with a great menacing climax, followed by a beautifully sparse anticlimax. Both brought out the best pure music of the evening. Another musical high point was the final chorale-like texture that segued from final monologue to curtain. While showing great finesse elsewhere, Simpson was not afraid to let music occasionally be crudely illustrative – shallow, even, as at the grinding riffs that accompanied the sex scene. Fourteen players provided a mini-orchestra of timbres, and about halfway through the opera an electro-acoustic element joined in. This served to liberate the players to some extent, as it often provided a sustained core to the music that allowed the instruments to become more decorative in function. It was some of the best combining of computer and acoustic timbres I have heard. Solo vocal writing was handled with humour and variety, though I thought more use of sprechstimme rather than straight speech would have improved things, and also more vocal ensemble textures could have been used.

Simon Doyle’s libretto was written mostly in straightforward language, but veered at times to a stylised language (distancing the audience from the madness of the characters), occasionally sounding arch: ‘I will first keep the watch’, answered by: ‘I will to sleep.’ A very complex plot (as given in the synopsis) turned out to be easy to follow, a testament to the writer’s skill. Sometimes though the characters simply appeared and announced themselves (something like: ‘I am Wyke’ … ‘and I am Phipp, his wife’) – not the subtlest of dramatic devices! The entrance of the highly polarised, almost stock commedia del’ arte characters Moorish and Firk was a much more effective way of providing a shorthand for dramatic and plot progress.

While this is a black comedy, it ended on an almost didactic note. The message that you have to rely on your own unclouded judgement to survive and not invent a saviour figure was more or less stated by Blane (Nicole Tibbels) at the end, despite this being abundantly clear all along. This presentation of the moral was at least leavened by the fact that her character was the darkest of all: realistic enough to spot where everyone was fooling themselves, yet literally revelling in conspiracy, mutilation and murder.

The Almeida Ensemble under Philip Walsh played with wonderful focus.

Published on 1 November 2003

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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