From Morning to Midnight
Wigmore Hall, London
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Like eating bran, new music is assumed to be somehow good for you; purgative and healthy. But in a month full of significant premieres, ENO was smart enough to ignore the air of hair- shirtedness that hangs over so much of the contemporary music scene. Instead it marketed its new commission From Morning to Midnight (FMTM) as interesting and exciting theatre, and that is exactly what it is.
Let me say straight off that I'd recommend FMTM to anyone: there's some excellent writing from composer and librettist David Sawer - who draws from the 20th-century lexicon without falling into cliche - and fine performances from John Daszak as the bank clerk, Linda Kitchen as his daughter, and Susan Bickley as his wife. It's also great to look at, and if you're a fan of Richard Jones's gutsy productions, the visual jokes (of which there are many) won't fail to amuse. But I'm not convinced that this opera is finished - by which I don't mean that there isn't enough music. The ideas are sharp but the delivery is stilted through exaggeration and repetition. In part this is a nod to Expressionist theatre, but it also smacks of a lack of compositional confidence. Instinct tells me that FMTM, which currently runs for 80 minutes, would shine more brightly for being condensed.
The plot works on several levels; as a straight narrative tracing the bank clerk's excursion into crime from domestic inertia and emotional impotence; as an interesting satire on redemption; and as a rather less interesting satire on capitalism. Sawer's musical effects are brilliant - the whiz of bicycle wheels, the buzz of flies, the clatter of cooking, the lurch of vomit - and his depictions of hysteria are astonishing. But he lacks the courage to deal with the grotesqueries and move on. A chunk of Tannhauser is played ineptly on the daughter's synthesizer and interrupted by a tooth-grindingly dull conversation about pork chops. Twice. Or was it three times? Believe me, I'm the last person to wince at Wagner being lampooned, but once is enough. It's the same with the flies, the bikes and the whores in the night-club (which is one of the most well-written and shocking scenes), the repetition numbs. Coupled with the sneeringly anti-capitalist didactic and apparent terror of women, FMTM seems to have been influenced by The Young Ones. Small wonder that the performer most readily brought to mind by Daszak's dazed bank clerk is Alexei Sayle.
Sawer has an audacious talent and this is a vast circus of a piece, but the intimate and less obviously political exchanges are the most interesting. (I'd love to hear him do a love story after this.) Among the smaller parts Heather Shipp (Hostess 3) and Gail Pearson (Salvation Army Girl) stood out for their clear, natural singing. A shame then that some of this was lost under the orchestration, and curious that the singers aren't miked throughout the opera instead of only fleetingly in the final scene. Still, I look forward to hearing Sawer's next work and hope that he moves past the influence of alternative comedy. Yes, people are suckers for being taken in by shopping channels and quick-fix confessionals. Yes, it's funny. But it's so last century darling.
Geoffrey Burgon probably isn't considered important by the contemporary music clique. Why? Because, like Lowell Lieberman and Ned Rorem, he writes intelligent, lyrical settings of beautiful poetry. So the premiere of his John Donne song-cycle Heavenly Things was slipped unobtrusively into baritone Christopher Maltman's Wigmore Hall recital between Schumann's Husarenlieder Op 117 and Liederkreis Op 24. …