Oscar Bianchi - Thanks to my Eyes
Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2011
Franck Ollu, Joël Pommerat, Hagen Matzeit, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Keren Motseri, Fflur Wyn, Anne Rotger, Antonie Rigot
Bel Air Media, La Monnaie Internet streaming
Writing his first opera, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and premiered there in 2011, Swiss-Italian composer Oscar Bianchi took a French drama by Joël Pommerat (‘Grâce à mes yeux’) as the source of Thanks to my Eyes, but took the unusual step of asking the author to adapt the work into the English language for the libretto. The reason for the change of language, according to the composer, working very much in the modern musical idiom, was purely technical and related to the more discordant sounds and textures evoked by the work that suited English singing better than the more musical-sounding French. I can think of another reason not explicitly stated by the composer why you would be cautious about setting a French-language drama to music, and that’s Pelléas et Mélisande.
Even then, while there might be the occasional reminder of the more spooky elements of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in the chamber instruments, it still proves impossible to escape the huge influence of Debussy’s only opera and its extraordinary ability to fuse music to Maeterlinck’s already existing play, while keeping the original almost entirely intact. Bianchi’s approach to creating a musical ambience for Pommerat’s drama works - and works reasonably well to often striking effect, it has to be said - in a similar way. Cutting the original work back extensively to fit an opera work that is only about one hour and ten minutes long, the short scenes in Thanks to my Eyes have a similar feeling of incompleteness, interruption and open abstraction that is there in Debussy and Maeterlinck’s symbolist work. The similarities however exist more than just on the surface approach of connecting the music to the drama.
While the story and themes are quite different to Pelléas et Mélisande, there are similarities in the theatrical representation of the drama. A young man, Aymar, timid and solitary, is dominated by his famous father, a great comedian who, in the first scene, is shown handing one of the suits he uses in his act to his son, clearly expecting him to follow in his footsteps. His dominance of Aymar however also extends to control over finding a suitable woman for the young man, suggesting and trying to influence Aymar into choosing a woman like his own mother, much as he chose his wife based on his own mother. Aymar however is torn between two women, a Young Blond Woman and a mysterious cloaked Young Woman in the Night who keeps her face covered, who he secretly meets on a mountain top away from the eyes of his family. He knows however that he must break off this relationship, but is too timid to even be able to take that step.
Reducing the drama down to key scenes, although maintaining a linear, serial flow, even if some of the scenes are rather abstract in nature, does have the impact of bringing any undercurrents and symbolism directly to the surface. Like Debussy however, even though he is working in a much different musical language, the intention of Bianchi is to convey a sense of deeper meaning and suggestion beyond actual language and physical expression. While on the one hand then the figures all fit into regular types - domineering father, passive mother, child seeking to find his own sense of self and expression apart from them - there are other intriguing elements that are indeed evoked by the drama scenes, lighting and the use of the atmospheric chamber music. It may not be the most memorable or melodic music, but its intent is to integrate more fully into the whole theatrical process as a Gesamkunstwerk, as does the expression through the singing.
The singing on this recording at the opera’s world premiere run in Aix-en-Provence, is of an exceptionally high standard, and when I say exceptionally high, I’m not just referring to the unusual use of a countertenor voice for Aymar, sung by Hagen Matzeit. This is an appropriate choice for the figure, emphasising his difference from his (not unexpected) bass-baritone father, Brian Bannatyne-Scott. The singing and sometimes wayward phrasing weave in complex ways, and work well off each other in this context. Interestingly, while the two women are sopranos (both singing the roles wonderfully, Fflur Wyn in particular having to reach some extraordinary high notes), the mother has a speaking-role only, and speaks in French, as do the others when speaking to her. The dramatic reasons for this are remain unexplained - it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that their mother might be a native French speaker - but it does introduce another intriguing dramatic and vocal element that contributes to the overall complexity of the meaning contained within the overall soundscape.
The tone of the music and singing and the effect it creates is matched by the staging, directed by the original author and librettist, Joël Pommerat. Locations are generic - outdoors, indoors, on a mountain top, at a edge of a cliff - uniformly grey in the darkness (barring a sunrise and some atmospheric lighting effects here and there), sparse and solitary, clearly evoking an emotional landscape more than a literal one. On the whole, regardless of what you judge to be the qualities of the often obscure motivations and actions in the drama or whether you find the style of music pleasant or not, the work does indeed transport you into another world entirely and hold you in its thrall for over an hour.
Broadcast via the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt, (available on-line until 5th May 2012) this recording unusually isn’t of the current production running in Brussels, but a recording made at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2011. I’m not sure how this would have been presented on the stage, but the television recording allows the disparate scenes to flow and change without any breaks in the music, using frequent intertitles (in French) along the lines of “A few moments later, in the same place” or “That night, on the mountain top” to effect the rapid switches in time and location. Yes, Thanks to my Eyes is a rather strange, experimental piece of avant-garde music-theatre whose meaning may be difficult to fathom, with music and singing that may be challenging to the ears, but it does succeed in creating an alternative means of expression that comes across effectively on the screen and I’m sure even more so in a theatre.