The Wasp Factory, Linbury Studio Theatre | New music reviews, news & interviews
The Wasp Factory, Linbury Studio Theatre
Yet another 'radical', cross-genre operatic collaboration comes a cropper
A baby's brain is polished off by a throbbing welter of maggots. A field of sheep are on fire. A screaming child whose hands have been tied to a kite is flying out over the North Sea. How do you make an opera out of any of this? The answer of course is you don’t. You leave this kind of thing to cinema or the novel. Opera is - contrary to popular belief - extremely bad at spectacle, especially if the aim is to terrify. Horror has never had much of a look-in as a genre in the art form. So it was always going to be a challenge for composer Ben Frost and librettist David Pountney to transfer Iain Banks’s richly horrific cult book The Wasp Factory to the opera stage.
The horror that propels the story forward was substantially cut by Pountney. Frank, the boy protagonist, is no longer the active sadist of the Banks novel, murdering his relatives in ever more elaborate ways, massacring animals with gruesome relish, seeking redemption through death like a trainee Richard Wagner. In the Frost remake he is a schizophrenic fantasist, who relates the basics and does little else. He is also a she – part of a plot twist that isn’t much delved into in the opera and can only make sense if you’ve read the book. And she becomes they, as three female performers act out Frank’s dark fantasies while writhing around in a pit of earth like worms.
The music could have saved the production’s bacon had Frost stuck to what he does best
While it’s probably wise that Frost and Pountney sidestepped any literal representation of the savagery, it does mean that you get little sense of the main attraction of the book, namely its graphic descriptions of death and destruction. The handy thing about opera is you get a second and third chance to tell the story if you at first fail with words. Visuals came most successfully to the aid of the work. Mirella Weingarten’s simple but ever restless square crater of soil - which seeks to rid itself of the three figures crawling around in it - had its moments, especially when it was left to deliver its tableaux in silence.
The acting (which was being directed by Frost himself) was less interesting in the way it went through familiar hysterical motions. It was also wasteful of an element of the novel that is so effective: the way the boy behaves in most respects (outside of his murdering) quite normally.
The music could have saved the production’s bacon had Frost stuck to what he does best. But his famous, attractively dense electroacoustic soundscapes – that hover seductively between noise, drone, ambient sound and pop - were fleeting. There were two glorious slabs of cleverly manipulated high and low sound at the start and end that seemed to suggest the act of boring into a brain.
But the rest of it chugged away in a pappy postminimal language orchestrated for a quintet of strings that came very close to backing-band territory and sounded suspiciously like someone attempting "to write an opera", rather than someone seeking to make the best sounds in response to specific sentiments faced. If we ignore the derivative, Bjork-like vocal lines - all shaped into very conventional aria, trio and recititative forms - the singers, Liselot De Wilde, Mariam Wallentin and Jordin Richter, did a good job.
Whether one thinks of Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee or Nitin Sawhney’s Entanglement, it is so often the most supposedly "radical", cross-genre collaborations that produce the most conservative results. The same has sadly happened again.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more New music
Doo-wop and honking sax on the musical eccentric’s calling card to a mass audience
Another outing for the seminal ‘Spunk’ bootleg
Masterful blend of ancient and modern Greek sounds
Folk-rock master on Kanye, songwriting, vagrants, cricket and much besides
Best of Britain's young choristers and jazz musicians in fabulous Shakespeare homage
First for 14 years from punk original Mark Perry and band
Later and greater than the rest - Glastonbury, the full adventure
Profoundly depressing scrutiny of the ascent and decline of Amy Winehouse
Tony Visconti, Woody Woodmansey and friends play the David Bowie classic
Loss, leaving and new beginnings dominate a beautiful album from the former Espers singer
Genre-straddling pianist on his covers project, and how the hip hop home studio denudes music
The final day of this inaugural free jazz festival proves British improv is in rude health