Yesterday’s feast of culture ended with the final performance of Philip Venables’ opera based on Sarah Kane’s play, 4.48 Psychosis , a joint collaboration between Royal Opera House and Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Having read very conflicting views of the opera, and also a discussion about the transformation from play to opera on BBC radio 4’s Front Row I really wasn’t at all sure what I was likely to experience or how I’d react.
The set, a white box, with a door that never opens, with frosted glass effect, that bright light shines through on occasions, a loud speaker on the wall facing the audience, and a door that opens stage right. Some institutional type wooden chairs and an oblong similarly institutional table is really the sum total of what you get to see other than a pile of clothes, some cardboard boxes etc. The white box could be a hospital, the inside of someone’s head, the archetypal exhibition space or all three or something altogether different. The gallery space appealed to me as a practising artist- there is something mind-numbing and totally lacking in emotional understanding about the white cube, and a white cube is where people’s fantasies, nightmares and imaginings are acted out for oneself and for others to witness.
The band (hardly an orchestra- with the most remarkable percussion section, including bass drum and saw, at times vigorously, other times subtly, always wittily and intelligently played) was placed above the box- so an integral part of the performance.
6 female singers, all wearing particularly unflattering baggy grey cardigans, jeans and black vest tops took the part or parts- of what? who?
Much of the script from the play was not spoken or sung but flashed up as video on the white walls. Use of electronic effects and pre-recorded material added to the feelings of alienation of the performers to the audience and the performers to each other. The physical separation of the band to the singers- above rather than the conventional below in the orchestral pit, further changed the dynamic of music to singing, and performance to audience.
The opening was accompanied by the very irritating music you hear when put on hold, or the type of tune that infuriatingly gets stuck as an ear-worm in your head. It’s enough to drive you crazy- so for a character suffering from mental illness, it would not take much to push her further into the abyss. Up flashes “What do you offer your friends to make them so supportive?” Straight away there is trade-off, that without you giving something you cannot expect anything in return.
The shadows of the singers criss crossing the walls as they slowly move around the stage, half singing, half speaking, Albern Berg-like (there were moments that reminded me of the anguish of Wozzeck) counting backwards, the standard method of checking for clarity of thought, the numbers flashing, then suddenly going forwards rather than backwards all add to the stress effect. There is dialogue (mostly flashed up on video, accompanied by excellent “conversations” between the percussion, that is precisely timed to co-incide with the video, which is often black and almost as often witty. The subject matter is dark but there is unexpected laughter in this performance.
Venables uses a raft of techniques in his composition. I was very moved by the use of the ostinato, Purcellian lament-like, towards the end of the opera. “I have been dead a long time” and as the singer turns to the audience she sings that she must return to her roots. “I” as the voice cracks, then “I” with an accompanying minor chord, the snare drum rattling, firing off questions and the bass drum, insistently, responding.
“Why have you forsaken me?” the cry from the New Testament of Jesus on the cross, and of the character/s personality/ies in this opera as the white space is cleared, tidied away, and then a motif that reminded me of Bach’s Mass in B minor (was it intentional?)
But did all this work as an opera? In a word, not really. I felt it was about 15 minutes too long: there seemed to be a bit too much padding out to make it into an acceptable length, which was actually a shame. For me, as a musician, an artist, a performer, this seemed to be more of a theatrical music piece rather than an opera as such. There was too much being conveyed through the use of video and projection which seemed to defeat the concept of opera, but….
and the set felt too much like a student job- too on the cheap for words. As if nothing had really been thought about with any depth, even though the set itself had given me lots to think about. How does that work? For something to be really thought provoking and quite unimaginative at the same time….
Like any good opera, I felt I had gone on a massive journey by the end of the production. I had been wrung dry, I had experienced catharsis as the Mozarts and Wagners and such like can achieve. Therefore, despite my misgivings, there was something fundamentally really “good” that happened on that stage. We all knew what would happen (although, remarkably, the psychoanalyst sitting next to me knew nothing about Sarah Kane or what he was about to see…..I had to give him a potted history in about 5 minutes flat before curtain up) and yet as a collective, we still sat in stunned silence at the end. Gripped in the tragedy we knew would play out. And then the audience erupted.
Would I see it again? Probably not. Would I see other work by Philip Venables? Yes. And Sarah Kane? Yes. And Chroma, the band playing? Most definitely yes. And the singers were fantastic even if they had little opportunity to demonstrate their acting ability. So like the curate’s egg, good in parts. But those good parts were fantastic.