Music: Pascal Dusapin
Directors: Michael McCarthy & Caroline Finn
Choreography: Caroline Finn
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Passionis a 2009 opera by French composer Pascal Dusapin that adds a contemporary twist to the legend of Orpheus, presented as a work for body and voice: a Dance Opera. This is a collaboration (their first) between Music Theatre Wales and London Sinfonietta, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, with vocal group Exaudi and dancers from National Dance Company Wales. The two main parts – Her and Him – are taken by Jennifer France (soprano) and Johnny Herford (baritone).
The basis for Passionis the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice – a popular subject for opera – and the contemporary twist is to give her an equal voice. The narrative is usually very much about his grief and subsequent ‘heroic’ actions in response to her (twice) death. Passiondoes two things: removes the narrative almost entirely and focuses on the emotional consequences of her death, and gives more than equal prominence to herreaction, giving her voice and agency in response to her own death and sense of loss and separation, not just from love but from life itself.
An interesting pre-show talk (if one chooses to attend) advises the audience not to think of Passionas an opera (even a Dance Opera, as it is billed) but as a live sound installation with movement. Text is present but stripped of linear narrative and surtitles: this is to be considered almost as another sound element, with the voice as distinct instruments – much as the harp, distant ‘lonely’ harpsichord and Arabic Oud are within the orchestration.
Many of the elements of Passionare rather good. London Sinfonietta – under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson – sound wonderful. The medium-sized ensemble are augmented by subtle, detailed use of additional sound effects such as running water and amplified breath, and sections of soundscape and computer programming triggered by elements of the live music. The contemporary vocal group Exaudi are also wonderful. Unseen, they act sometimes as Greek chorus, at other times as a blended vocal element of the orchestration. Sometimes their voices are in mysterious close atonal harmony, at others their individual voices weave in and out of the group from both ends of the range. At all times their voices hover mysteriously like smoke over the stage, sometimes billowing up from the pit.
Jennifer France (Her) and Johnny Herford (Him) give strong, engaging performances, always on stage together but permanently separated by the veil of death, literally symbolised by a waterfall of sunshine-gold silk and a ladder from life to the underworld; there is also a door of brilliant white light that afford neither entry nor exit. Their performances tear speculatively at the veil as he comes to terms with her loss and she comes to the realisation that she has lost her life: am I deaf? Am I blind? Am I dead? Both explore the possibility and impossibility of being reunited. Passionis as much about the anguish of loss and separation as about the passion of love. The non-linear narrative gives their exchanges a circular, unresolvable nature, even as the piece works its way to incremental darkness and an ambiguous ending. The repetition in the text – translated with Dusapin’s permission from Italian to English (by Amanda Holden) – emphasises the infinite limitations to their inner dialogue, which could be matter of moments or for all of eternity.
The movement elements are provided by National Dance Company Wales, choreographed by the show’s co-director (and their own resident choreographer) Caroline Finn. The movement is strongest when the dancers completely engage with the two singers, especially France, who appears no stranger to movement. There is an especially-lovely recurring motif where she falls in slow motion from the ladder supported and borne by the dancers. When the dancers are clearly echoing Him and Her or physically supporting or manipulating them the piece is visually very effective. But there are moments when it is unclear what their function is: are they peopling the underworld, surrounding the living and dead with the unseen figures that have passed and are yet present in the underworld? At other times, perhaps seduced by the chiaroscuro lighting, their grouping and movement suggests Renaissance paintings come to life (the distant harpsichord and wisplike references to Monteverdi may enhance this impression).
The problem with Passionis arguably what it is not as much as what it is. It is eighty minutes of atonal, non-narrative musings on the anguish of loss and death: this can be challenging. What it is not is an opera in the conventional sense; it is also not a contemporary dance piece or ballet as such. If you can allow all those things to unconcern you and you enjoy Dusapin’s mournful but not unmelodic music then Passionis rather wonderful with strong collaborative elements by excellent ensembles and creatives working in harmony. There are moments when the music and visuals and voices and movement are completely lovely. But Passionis a challenge and there are moments when it feels like an eternity.
Reviewed on 6 November 2018 | Image: Contributed