SUM - Royal Opera Linbury Studio, 23 May 2012 (world premiere)
Spot the difference.
A couple of years ago the notorious Bono-collaborator Brian Eno created a multimedia production for the Brighton Festival based on neuroscientist David Eagleman’s book Sum: 40 Tales From The Afterlives. Eno supplied a noodly, Eno-y soundtrack for a selection of readings from Eagleman's quirky stories about what might happen after we die.
Last night Wayne McGregor and his composing collaborator Max Richter created a multimedia production for the Royal Opera House based on neuroscientist David Eagleman’s book Sum: 40 Tales From The Afterlives. Richter supplied a noodly, Eno-y soundtrack for a selection of readings from Eagleman's quirky stories about what might happen after we die.
Interesting, eh? Unfortunately, for a production the ROH has been selling on its originality, the curious Eno precedent is the least of its problems.
The best thing about it is Richter's dreamy, pulsing, Glass-like score, performed by an amplified chamber orchestra with electronic extras. It's a pity that, having recruited three excellent opera singers, he gives them far more to speak than to sing, but I guess that's what happens when you try to include as much of the original text as possible. Too much of the music was distorted by the amplification (intentionally? I don't know) but even so, I could see it working well as a soundtrack to some sort of Wings of Desire-type movie.
McGregor's staging on the other hand..........
We entered the Linbury Studio to find it eviscerated and enclosed by grey walls. There was a walled orchestra pit in the centre, like a bear enclosure at the zoo, surrounded by canvas camping chairs. Not raked and not staggered, incidentally, so anyone not on the front rows (i.e. most of the audience) probably spent the evening looking at the back of the head of the person in front of them.
Not that there was much to see. The singers sat down, stood up, wandered around. Projections played continually on all four walls - mostly geometric shapes, with the occasional crowd scene and an all too brief dance sequence. Was it meant to enhance the text, explain it, or just provide a visual accompaniment? No idea.
I squirmed. I yawned. I snored (sorry) during a brief kip. One hour and twenty minutes felt like back-to-back Götterdämmerungs.
Like the misfortunate Miss Fortune, I have to wonder how this one got past the ROH quality police. I am a huge fan of Wayne McGregor's choreography, I enjoyed his opera directing on the Acis and Galatea/Dido and Aeneas double double bill, but what he's done here falls way short, not just in creative terms, but basic technical considerations of audience comfort, sightlines and acoustics. Eagleman's words are thought-provoking and people might get something out of that side of the show - but it would be cheaper and easier to buy the book.
By the way, the photos on the ROH website bear little relation to what I saw - these couple of shots taken as people were leaving give a more accurate view.