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Manchester music reviews

Life is a Dream by Birmingham Opera Company

Life is a Dream by Birmingham Opera Company

at Argyle Works, Birmingham

Reviewed by Denis Joe March 2012


Going to see an opera doesn’t normally entail a drive to an industrial estate warehouse on the outskirts of the city, but this was to be a new experience for me: opera denuded of its high art pretentions.


I had heard whispers about Birmingham Opera Company before: this was opera for the masses; cutting edge and the realisation of Berthold Brecht’s revolutionary approach to theatre outlined in his Short Organum for the Theatre.


Arriving at the ‘venue’ in Digbeth, Birmingham, we made our way through a strip door into a small warehouse section with a makeshift bar and people standing around or sitting on a few work benches and chairs.


We were then guided into the main arena which was already peopled with characters sleeping in foetal positions or walking around. Our guides ushered us through to one section, where we could view a chorus standing on a staircase whilst other members of the company passed amongst us; some dressed in costume and some in everyday clothes - an insider’s view of the opera is available from Niall Crowley's excellent blog piece. The orchestra were situated in a circled partition in the middle of the warehouse, with the conductor, William Lacey, the only member who looked the part.


In the far right hand corner of the warehouse we come across an exaggerated bed where Segismundo (the outstanding baritone, Eric Greene) awakes and is confused as to why he is where he is (Ah, wretched me). The chorus taunt him for his incomprehensiveness. We later learn that he had been imprisoned by his father, the King of Poland, who was terrified by omens at the birth of the boy. Another character, Rosaura the mezzo, Wendy Dawn Thompson, appears, arrives, disguised as a boy and carrying a sword, that belonged to her father, whom she had never met.


Life is a Dream: Argyle Works, BirminghamClotaldo (the baritone-bass, Keel Watson), Segismundo's jailer, comes across Rosaura and recognises the sword as his own and delivers his aria, exhibiting his dilemma between duty to the King and his paternal duty. We learn that Rosaura has come to take revenge on the King’s nephew Astolfa (the tenor, Joseph Guyton), who had promised to marry her. We later learn that Astolfa has proposed marriage to his cousin, Estella (the soprano Donna Bateman). Neither of them are aware of the existence of Segismundo and feel that as the Children of the King’s sisters they would be the most appropriate heirs.


Meanwhile the King, Basil, (the tenor, Paul Nilon) announces the existence of Segismundo to the people and explains why he had kept him imprisoned and a secret all these years. Rosaura is brought before the King and explains why she has come to kill Astolfa. This set up the drama for the remainder of the story.


What had frightened the King about the prophecy concerning Segismundo was that he would become a cruel king. So Basil has him drugged in order to test the truth. Segismundo causes havoc and the prophecy is shown to be true. The King has him returned to his prison. Meanwhile Astolfa recognises Rosaura and breaks off with Estella.


The people revolt when they learn of the existence of a prince and they free Segismundo, who eventually proves that he can become a just ruler, pardoning his father and demanding that Astolfa keeps his promise to Rosaura.


What is amazing is that Life is a Dream is based on the play by the 17th century playwright Pedro Calderón. Its plot structure and story are ideal for opera and yet this is only the second time that the story has been adapted as a libretto (James Maraniss had written a libretto, two years ago, for Lewis Spratlan’s opera of the same name).


Doves music is clearly derivative and the composer John Adams has been brought up as a comparison in other reviews of this opera. Indeed, I found much of the orchestral music to sound very much like Adams and Philip Glass, but the strength of Dove’s composition lies in his vocal writing, and it is here where the comparisons fail. Philip Glass writes simple and melodic musical pieces but in his songs and operas he fails to capture any sense of the characters he tries to portray. Adams is far more successful, but tends to overdramatise. This is clear in the politically driven opera The Death of Klinghoffer, and can, sometimes, come over as caricature. The same cannot be said for Dove. In his opera Flight and his choral music, the attention to detail of emotion and intellectual depth, is what comes across as being his main concern, and for that alone I would rate him as one of the most important contemporary composers.


Life is a Dream at ArgyleAndrew Clements writing in The Guardian suggests that the chorus of Life is a Dream sound like that of Les Misérables and is sniffy about its ‘sentimentality’. This strikes me as not only snobbish but flippant and ignorant. The Chorus of Life is a Dream is massive, as is the chorus of Les Misérables, yet the effect is no less than that of, say, Mahler’s 8th Symphony. Like Mahler, Dove certainly can write effective music for the solo voice as well as the collective. The final sextet of the main cast reminded me of some of the great group moments that can be found in the great operas of Verdi.


It was beautiful, and for that reason it could explain why some people are quick to mistake the beautiful for something less than the profoundness of the ugly. The tradition of viewing despair and evil as being so worthy of praise has a long history, you would think that critics would have grown out of that childish view by now. It is true that Dove’s music is ‘approachable’. But being a populist is no barrier to being creative. If that were the case how easy it would be to dismiss the works of Puccini.


Unfortunately there was no synopsis in the programme for this performance, and there is no libretto that is easily accessed, but a bad libretto can be noticed in a performance. Sometimes it can take only a few lines to make you wince and this was not the case with Alisdair Middleton’s libretto, even if the title of the opera sounds a little corny (it is a literal translation of the title of Calderón play, La vida es sueño).


If the night was a triumph for Dove and Middleton it was no less so for Graham Vick and his team’s direction. Everything about the night was spectacular, but it also spoke about against the times we live in. The patronising idea that the ordinary person is incapable of appreciating high art (and this opera belongs, firmly, in that category) was shown up for the petty view that it is. The majority of the cast were amateurs, drawn from the local community and students. Their dedication and outstanding ability to rise to the enormous challenges of this event were astounding. The opera was a Health and Safety official’s worst nightmare as the cast ran amok amongst the audience and clambered up scaffolding that looked less secured than you would expect from a cowboy builder.


Life is a Dream, Birmingham Opera CompanyBut it also was a physical and intellectual challenge for the audience. There is no seating and we had to be aware of cast members running towards us. Not only that but the whole experience could also prove disconcerting. Usually an opera experience means sitting down and the music and singing comes to you from the stage. Here, however, the person standing next to you might suddenly burst out into song or even start throwing themselves on the floor or throw pillows into the air. The whole event was a challenge for all involved. As an audience member you became a part of the action. Vick deserves the highest praise for treating the audience as intelligent and up to taking a challenge. So at the end when everyone, cast and audience, applauded, it made perfect sense, for we all played a part in the event.


I cannot praise this event any higher. It was a new experience for me but also the most logical way of presenting a performance. Being a bit fragile on my feet, I felt uncomfortable at times, yet this had a more a feeling of exhilaration that one gets in dangerous situations, than fear and it was more exciting than being on the Space Shot in Southport.


The main cast were world class. Nothing about this event suggested cutting corners. So I was rather disappointed to learn that the next BOC production of Stockhausen’s five-hour long Mittwoch aus Licht will not be using amateurs. Yet this was a major strength of Life is a Dream. Initially I thought that the use of people from the local community was just another exercise in ticking the right boxes on a funding application, but I was, happily, proved wrong. Whilst I appreciate the problems that Mittwoch aus Licht brings to staging, it cannot be any more of a trial for the cast than Life is a Dream and I find it hard to believe that it is beyond the capabilities of Graham Vick and his team at Birmingham Opera Company. Whilst professionals bring to a production a recognised quality that we can feel assured by, the amateur will always provide a sense of danger; unpredictability and spontaneity and this is what made Life is a Dream such a thrilling experience.


My deepest thanks to Sarah Bartlett and Niall Crowley for their support and helpful comments.

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