■ Johnny Herford and Jennifer France in ‘Passion’ with Music Theatre Wales fragments of the Italian maestro’s music punctuate the course of the work on a harpsichord (heard but not seen, as if Monteverdi himself were playing, the invisible guiding force behind the work), lending an air of strangeness and melancholy to the spectacle. The libretto is by Dusapin himself, drawing on a broad range of Orphic sources, and was originally in Italian, thus situating the work within a network of associations including Monteverdi as well as the Latin culture of Virgil and Ovid that was so crucial to the dissemination of the Orpheus tale. Why, then, was this production given in English? It seemed an odd decision to sever the piece from this subtle web of references, more so since Amanda Holden’s translation, wonderful though I’m sure it is, remained largely inaudible.
Passion is a passion in many senses. It is about the passion between two lovers, modelled on Orpheus and Eurydice but in detached form as simply Him and Her, and now giving equal voice to the female character. It is also a passion in the Bachian sense, that is, a meditation on suffering. And it was on the latter aspect that the co-directors Michael McCarthy and Caroline Finn focused in this partnership between Music Theatre Wales and the National Dance Company Wales. Passion, originally ‘simply’ an opera at its 2008 premiere in Aix-en-Provence, was rethought as a ‘dance-opera’ for two singers (Jennifer France and Johnny Herford), an offstage amplified chorus of six voices (Exaudi), six dancers who, like the singers, remained on stage throughout, and 18 players of the London Sinfonietta. The dancers represented The Others whose movements echoed those of the singers. In Finn’s fluid choreography, elegiac lines were made by soloists, or in pairs, or by creating beautiful shapes for all the dancers in unison, bodily extensions of the suffering of Him and Her. The singers’ voices, similarly, were echoed by the chorus and distributed electronically around the auditorium, sometimes just amplified intakes of breath or whispers that became watery sounds, at other times clear sustained notes or denser clusters. The players, too, picked up these sounds like a kind of resonating chamber: one vocal note could be coloured to arresting effect by a number of instruments; the harpsichord was extended by a group consisting of synthesizer, harp, pizzicato strings and oud, as if in imitation of Orpheus’s lyre. Dusapin’s imagination appeared limitless: he had created a gorgeous, sophisticated, slowly shifting landscape of sound, often at soft dynamic levels, with long lines weaving their way through the ensemble, and striking solos, notably for the dancing flute of Philippa Davies. The problem for me (and I write this with reluctance about something of such beauty) was that the music was so static harmonically, even in its rhythmically more animated sections, that any real sense of dramatic movement was lost. Yes, it was conceived as a meditation, and the plot (if one even exists as such) is not the work’s raison d’être. But are lovely sounds in themselves sufficient to sustain an opera for 80
Opera, December 2018