Steph Powers is at Dora Stoutzker Hall to review a Music Theatre Wales and Huw Watkins performance marking the beginning of a partnership with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Since the early days of opera, when Claudio Monteverdi and his Renaissance contemporaries first staged a type of secular music drama with characters that mostly sang rather than spoke, the question of what kind of an art-form opera is and what it seeks to do has elicited passionate and differing responses. But what constitutes the bedrock of the art-form has never been seriously doubted – and that is, music. Not theatre nor visual spectacle, not staged narrative nor even libretto, but musical sound; the dramatic combination of voice and instrumental ensemble expressing human emotion and telling human stories. The acting of roles and paraphernalia of staging have always been important, but secondary to the music itself which carries the drama – even in Richard Wagner’s supposedly totalised Gesamtkunstwerk, in which he aimed to elevate the visual, the poetic and the musical into a new kind of integrated art-form beyond any one of the three alone.
At the heart, then, of Music Theatre Wales, as with all opera companies, lies music and the composers who write it. What characterises Music Theatre Wales is that, not only is it one of the UK’s leading touring companies, but it is also one of the few demonstrating an ongoing commitment to the development of opera as a contemporary art-form through the commissioning of new works by living composers, rather than the re-staging of familiar, established repertoire from the past. This concert at the Dora Stoutzker Hall was an opportunity to meet two such composers, whose work with Music Theatre Wales is currently touring as a double-bill across the UK in collaboration with Scottish Opera; Welsh-born Huw Watkins (In the Locked Room, librettist David Harsent) and Scot Stuart MacRae (Ghost Patrol, librettist Louise Welsh).
Stripping back, as it were, to bare, musical bones away from the operatic stage, this event featured members of MTW’s Ensemble, offering an introduction to the chamber, concert music of these two contrasting composers and three others with whom MTW have already or will in future enjoy operatic collaboration; Boden, Sciarrino and Turnage. It also marked the inauguration of a three-year partnership between MTW and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation) which aims, in the words of MTW Joint-Artistic Director Michael McCarthy, “to expand the appetite and understanding of contemporary opera in Cardiff” and “build a platform of professional knowledge and experience for future performers, musicians, writers and composers”. So, an important event, which also sought, in part, to open a dialogue concerning the different but not necessarily unrelated disciplines of composing for theatre and composing for the concert platform; which latter – at least in terms of contemporary music – ironically appears so much harder for audiences to engage with in the absence of additional theatrical inducement.
Three of the composers (Watkins, Boden and MacRae) were present to talk about their work. Of these, perhaps inevitably given the current tour, it was MacRae and Watkins who made the more overt links to their operas. MacRae described how his mini viola concerto Equilibrium pitted soloist against quintet in a dramatic dialogue directly informed by his operatic writing; here, with a gradual paring down of contrast, play and imitation to find balance in repose. The work offered a proliferation of dynamic ideas and intriguing landscapes, ably navigated by conductor Rafferty and with some excellent playing. A greater sense of risk would have enhanced the drama which, nonetheless, had subtlety as well as punch.
Watkins opened both halves, given star billing for his deserved renown as a pianist. His Four Inventions for piano solo were a concise, brilliant display but it was his piano trio Speak Seven Seas which referenced his opera, for which it was a study. Both the opera and the trio have sea settings, the title here coming from Dylan Thomas’s Author’s Prologue; but this was no Four Sea Interludes-type extraction from the opera, despite clear stylistic parallels with Benjamin Britten. Rather, the trio takes the opera’s opening material in a different musical direction; employing an ebb and flow of changing moods – with some beautifully-crafted writing – to rise to the challenge of composing a piece of substantial duration (13-14 minutes) in just one movement.
The three remaining pieces were idiomatic showcases bearing no direct relation to their composer’s operatic writing. Boden’s Between Waking and Dreams was largely effective in its exploration of contrasting textures, inspired by a poem by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, which describes the tranquillity of air travel above the clouds and its antithesis in the mêlée enjoined upon landing, whilst the closing Grazioso! displayed Turnage’s trademark rude percussive health and sharp orchestration, with moments of surprising tenderness.
But before that came the clear highlight of the evening. The largely self-taught Sciarrino (b1947) is a prolific Italian composer whose importance has yet to be recognised in the UK. His Lo Spazio Inverso of 1984 was by far the oldest work on the programme but sounded the freshest and most striking, drawing the best from an ensemble that was everywhere superb. This was music of gossamer and depth; not at all fragile but appearing so in its hushed exploration of “sound at the edge of breath” as McCarthy put it – and with some astonishingly relaxed but controlled playing from clarinettist Scott Lygate. Deceptively simple yet profound, and inspiring eager anticipation of MTW’s 2013 UK premiere of Sciarrino’s 1998 opera Luci mie Traditrici (roughly, My Betraying Light). Yet another major forthcoming event, this will hopefully continue to prove MTW’s ability to draw large and enthusiastic audiences for superbly produced contemporary opera. Perhaps another challenge for the company’s ensemble might be to buck another cultural trend and discover how to do the same for some richly rewarding but relatively ignored contemporary music in the concert hall.
Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 4th October 2012
Huw Watkins – Four Inventions (2009)
Mark David Boden – Between Waking and Dreams (2012)
Stuart MacRae – Equilibrium (2008)
Huw Watkins – Speak Seven Seas (2011)
Salvatore Sciarrino – Lo Spazio Inverso (1984)
Mark-Anthony Turnage – Grazioso! (2009)
Miranda Fulleylove (violin), Yuko Inoue (viola), Daisy Vatalaro (‘cello), Jo Shaw (flute/piccolo), Scott Lygate (clarinets), Julian Warburton (percussion), Huw Watkins (piano/celeste), Michael Rafferty (conductor).
Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.