thu 20/06/2024

Wake, Birmingham Opera Company review - power to the people | reviews, news & interviews

Wake, Birmingham Opera Company review - power to the people

Wake, Birmingham Opera Company review - power to the people

The chorus is the real star in Giorgio Battistelli's ambitious operatic parable

Arias and Barcarolles: Birmingham Opera Company's WakeAdam Fradgley

“Would you like a veil?” asked a steward, offering a length of black gauze, and when you’re at a production by Birmingham Opera Company it’s usually wisest to say yes.

You get used to it - the frantic Google-mapping to locate the venue; the hike through the broken concrete and mud of Birmingham’s post-industrial fringe to whatever derelict factory the company has occupied this time around; the racing certainty that at some point you’re going to be hustled through a passageway by a bomber jacket-clad Graham Vick. (At La Scala and Covent Garden, audiences watch what Vick has directed. Only in Birmingham are they actually directed by him). “Put on your veils and try to imagine you’re asleep” commanded an MC. It’s all part of the BOC ritual: a deliberately unsettling process that breaks down preconceptions about what you’re about to witness, and how you should react.

So the world premiere of Giorgio Battistelli’s Wake opened on a vast gloomy warehouse dotted with trailers on which cast members, lit in brilliant white, mimed out activities ranging from swimming to childbirth. An amplified cellist played a low tremolando on a platform; percussionists placed around the room on further platforms responded with shimmers and chimes. Saurian cries occasionally emanated from a brass heavy orchestra, half hidden to one side, while Vick’s chorus – embedded in the promenading audience - responded with sighs and moans. Compelling, unsettling, immersive: we’ve come to expect this from Birmingham Opera Company, and Battistelli has created a music drama tailored to those strengths. The company calls him “Italy’s greatest living composer” - well, that’s Salvatore Sciarrino told. But the commitment of everyone involved was beyond question, particularly the 140 (at least) strong community chorus and acting company, whose absorption in their roles and mastery of Battistelli’s complex, richly layered score gave the whole piece its character: by turns menacing, consoling and viscerally thrilling.

Birmingham Opera Company Wake - photo by Adam Fradgley

The story is based on the New Testament tale of Lazarus, and after a lengthy first scene which only hinted at Battistelli’s lyrical gifts (a cor anglais player and two accordionists processed mournfully through the throng), the music lit up as Giuseppe di Iorio’s stark lighting swung onto Lazarus’s sisters Martha (Nardus Williams) and Mary (Mimi Doulton), and Jesus (Elliott Carlton Hines, pictured below) - a painfully human Messiah, intimidated equally by his own powers and the fickleness of the crowd. The same qualities that make a BOC production so memorable can also be problematic. I got close enough to see the panic flickering across Hines’s eyes, and to hear the moment at which Williams’s guttural wails of grief filled out and flowered into operatic melisma. But depending on where you’re standing in the warehouse, you’re unlikely to be able to decipher more than 50% of the words, and as the audience and chorus were ushered into a corner of the warehouse, with the orchestra making apocalyptic noises in the distance, the climactic act of resurrection will have been visible only to the handful who were able to push their way to the front.

Birmingham Opera Company Wake - Elliott Carlton Hines (Jesus) photo by Richard Willacy

No-one, however can have missed the raw, radiant blast of tone that Hines unleashed as he woke Lazarus (Joshua Stewart) who, after reacting with very plausible shock to his reanimation, found an eloquent lyricism that nicely complemented the ringing vocal warmth of both Williams and Doulton (pictured below). Battistelli let fly here too. Splashes of Berg and Messiaen were studded with glinting shards of Reich-like motor rhythms on two pianos, and the orchestra under Jonathon Heyward (who presumably had enough on his hands simply holding his scattered forces together) really soared. It proved to be the score’s musical peak. Jesus was dragged away into an outraged crowd, and the music was lost (as it tends to be when the spoken word enters) behind a sequence of spoken tableaux. A series of cartoonish, generic acts of intolerance, orchestrated by brutish policemen, culminated in Jesus being winched onto what looked like an Oak Furniture Land crucifix. The League of Gentlemen’s Legz Akimbo meets Rik Mayall’s People’s Poet: the pigs are, like, fascists, yeah?

Birmingham Opera Company Wake - Joshua Stewart (Lazarus) and Mimi Doulton (Mary)Presumably the librettist Sarah Woods intended this to be taken seriously: certainly, like everything else in Wake, it was delivered with fierce sincerity and breathtaking technical co-ordination. Battistelli’s score ends on a dying fall, a barcarolle and a vision of Martha, Mary and Lazarus carried above the swirl of the crowd in a little white boat. It’s a fascinating, often beautiful creation. If, perhaps inevitably, there’s very little character development, the choral writing evokes the crowd’s shifting moods just as powerfully as Vick’s restless direction embodies it in movement. That's fitting: the experience of being swept up within a moving, urgent mass of choral sound is something unique to BOC, and it’s at full strength here. It’s hard to imagine Wake being revived in more conventional venues – a shame, in one way, because there are ideas and sonorities to savour, and it’d be interesting to hear more than occasional fragments of Woods’s libretto. But as a commission for this company and these conditions, it’s almost a triumph. And in the best traditions of Birmingham Opera Company, it’s a musical-dramatic experience that leaves you with ears buzzing, mind racing, and ready to reassess everything you thought you knew about opera.


Splashes of Berg and Messiaen were studded with glinting shards of Reich-like motor rhythms


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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The cellist on the platform at the beginning of the opera was actually the conductor, Jonathan Heywood, not James Douglas. And the photo you stipulate is of Joshua Stewart and Mimi Doulton, is actually of Nardus Williams and Mimi.

Thank you for this - amended accordingly. It wasn't always possible to get close enough to identify individual performers last night, and only one cellist is listed in the programme. But then, part of the joy of BOC productions is that nothing is ever entirely as you expect it!

Cate - "Jonathan"? "stipulate"?

Great Review but having been at the premier last night the solo cellist pictured was in fact Jonathon Heyward the amazing conductor and cellist! It was he who played the audience in on the white illuminated platform! I hope this will be corrected in this otherwise candid review. Thankyou

See Richard's comment above. Thanks for reinforcing the point.

Thanks for this, Richard. Good to see such detailed engagement with a ground-breaking event! Sara Clethero

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