Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lens - Shell Shock (La Monnaie, 2014 - Webcast)

Nicholas Lens - Shell Shock

La Monnaie - De Munt, 2014

Koen Kessels, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Claron McFadden, Sara Fulgoni, Gerald Thompson, Ed Lyon, Mark S. Doss, Gabriel Kuti, Eastman, Aimilios Arapoglou, Damien Jalet, Jason Kittelberger, Kazutomi Kozuki, Elias Lazaridis, Johnny Lloyd, Nemo Oeghoede, Shintaro Oue, Guro Nagelhus Schia, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Theo Lally, Gabriel Crozier

La Monnaie Web streaming - November 2014

La Monnaie in Brussels are in my view just about the most consistently impressive opera company in Europe at the moment and at the forefront of presenting opera as a cutting edge artform. Part of the reason for their success is their willingness to involve theatre directors and artists from outside the opera world, who often bring a new and refreshing perspective on the meaning and presentation of very familiar works, but the musical interpretation and the quality of the performers engaged is of a very high standard too. Their commitment to ensuring that opera remains a vital musical and dramatic force is also evident in their commissioning of exciting new creations every season. This year Shell Shock proved to be one of the most impressive new works I've seen for a very long time.

Characteristically, the strength of the work and the key to its success is in how La Monnaie have assembled a strong and imaginative creative team from a variety of disciplines.  As some of these collaborators have little or no previous experience of opera, they often have few preconceptions about what opera ought to be. For this work, commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, the Belgian composer Nicholas Lens (born in Ypres where the memory of the war remains fresh) was been paired with the Australian singer/songwriter and author Nick Cave, while the direction and staging of the work was placed in the hands of Belgian-Moroccan dance choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The result is Shell Shock: A Requiem of War, A Dance Oratorio in Twelve Canti.

Evidently then, Shell Shock is not an opera in the traditional sense. It's part choral oratorio, it's part requiem mass, it's a ballet, it's a song cycle, but opera is a good enough description in how it encompasses and blends together these various musical and dramatic art disciplines. Made up of twelve separate cantos that describe the experience of the war from a variety of viewpoints (Canto of the Colonial Soldier, Canto of the Nurse, Canto of the Deserters, Canto of the Orphans etc.), there is however a strong thematic and even a narrative line that runs through the work, connecting the experiences. Even though there is little narrative dialogue within the canto format, the experiences being typically that of a single person or a group of people in a choral piece, there is nonetheless a vital dialogue established with the other elements. Not only is there a strong connection between the words and the music - as you would expect at the very least - but they form an meaningful dialogue and interact very much with the performers and dancers on the set, and with the various other theatrical stage devices, including the unconventional use of props, and projections.

This is an true operatic collaboration then in every sense of the word, where equal weight is given to each of the disciplines and they are informed, heightened and enhanced by their interaction with one another. Musically, Nicholas Lens draws on a variety of styles to match the content, some of it sounding like Vaughan-Williams in less pastoral more wartime music and, inevitably, closer to Britten's War Requiem. There is also a John Adams-like modern rhythmic quality in how the music is attuned to the sung English text, but without the minimalistic repetition. If it's difficult to pin down, the music nonetheless has a consistency and dramatic quality that works perfectly with the tone established by Nick Cave's texts. Unpretentiously called lyrics, they are indeed songs, Cave working to his strengths as a storyteller, expressing all the anger, exasperation, fear and horror of the conditions experienced by the soldiers, the nurses and the families of those caught up in nightmarish situations.

The connection between the words and the music is a strong combination that makes Shell Shock viable and deeply affecting as a concert piece in its own right, but Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's choreographed dances, movements and tableaux-like settings for the scenes really take the work to another level. The dances and movements manage to be strikingly beautiful without for a second glorifying the slaughter, without fitting the horror and confusion of the circumstances into any false sense of dramatic action, and without idealising the senselessness of the sacrifice. "War is reprehensible, not the man", is a line from the lengthy Canto of the Deserters section, but the theme is expanded on elsewhere, with lyrical and musical motifs referring to an Angel of Death and Kratos the God of War drawing together common experiences into a larger narrative.

Cherkaoui's dances, with Eastman leading the troupe, are also strikingly illustrative of these themes. It's a ballet of war where soldiers twitch with shell shock or contort as their bodies are disjointed, mutilated and torn apart by bullet fire and crawl over sandbags to form their own pile of corpse sandbags. The use of common objects found on the battlefield is employed imaginatively elsewhere, guns, bayonets and even stretchers flowing with the dancers into configurations that illustrate the stories and give expression beyond the literal. Bed sheets, for example, are used to capture charging soldiers, their faces and hands pressed against the canvas screen in a silent scream at the point of death. In combination with the music and the lyrics, it manages to be visually striking, expressive and horrific scene at the same time. Eugenio Szwarcer's projections and the stage lighting also come together with all the other elements to create further tableaux vivantes, or tableaux mortes if you can put it that way.

The singers are assigned various roles according to the Colonial Soldiers, Deserters, Survivors and Fallen of the Canti, some of them recurring throughout the opera as a whole. Essentially however, they are unnamed in the respect that each of them can fulfill multiple common designations within this war, and are identified only according to their singing role. The casting of a soprano (Claron McFadden), a mezzo-soprano (Sara Fulgoni), a countertenor (Gerald Thompson), a tenor (Ed Lyon) and a bass (Mark S. Doss) is clearly meant to be representative of the whole range of experiences covered here, but the choice of singers for those roles is also just about perfect. That's no coincidence either, several of these singers having worked with Lens before (Claron McFadden notably on Love Is The Only Master I'll Serve), but it's just another example of how La Monnaie strive for perfection on every level while stretching the capabilities of everyone to their limits. The results of this approach are evident to anyone viewing this remarkable work.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert