‘Dance Opera’ is the genre Music Theatre Wales offered last night. It’s not a concept we encounter often – though Opera North and Phoenix Dance are putting The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi on the same bill next year (here in March), that will be a dance piece followed by an opera one, not something that’s both at once.
Passion, by Pascal Dusapin, co-directed by Michael McCarthy and Caroline Finn, is a brave attempt to combine the arts. And, to be sure, the stage is not big enough for all of them. So the six singers of vocal group Exaudi, whose musical role was at times as prominent as those of the two main soloists, remained invisible until they took their bows at the end. The ‘chorus’, in one sense, was the half-dozen dancers, who we did see, and they worked around and partly with the two vocal protagonists, mirroring and extending in movement and gesture the thoughts and emotions the music was making audible. If the score contains dance notation as well as music staves, it must be a very big book indeed.
The basic ‘story’ is Orpheus and Eurydice – fruitful soil for operatic invention in the past, of course (whether by Monteverdi, Gluck, or in satirical guise by Offenbach). They are lovers, she dies, he penetrates the Underworld to find her but fails to bring her back because he can’t bear to lead her out without looking back at her beauty. Only whereas in the tragic presentations of the classic myth her silence is the source of his agony, in this she has a great deal to say – a very great deal. Whether they hear each other is another matter.
Whether that’s a righteous restoration of gender balance or not, or maybe an update of Orpheus and Eurydice to make it a dysfunctional husband-wife relationship, I’m unsure. Dusapin’s piece seems to be about love and loss – the pain of separation and death’s inevitability, and it deliberately avoids a narrative structure, instead presenting aspects of the same theme in a series of dawning realizations. Other than a fairly vigorous section as Orpheus makes his approach to the world beyond (was that the Furies of the original tale whose wrath he had to tame through music?), it’s rather static in musical character – long, sustained clusters of notes being the recurring orchestral contribution. It’s tempting to say it starts at a snail’s pace and then gets slower.
There are some telling solo passages, especially those for harpsichord and harp, and Dusapin’s greatest gift for theatre music (though he blends the note clusters beautifully) is in this simple, single-timbre writing. The standard of musical achievement in performance was incredibly high: Jennifer France (as ‘Her’) is a brilliant young soprano singer and the fact that she could do it even while being picked up and twirled around by some of the dancers only increased my admiration. Johnny Herford (also in MTW’s notable Philip Glass opera, The Trial) is likewise a terrific actor-soloist. And the Exaudi singers were in the same bracket.
The dancers delivered their goods with precision and commitment, attempting to raise the emotional temperature even when (it seems to me) the music failed to. At the end, though it got polite applause and there was one very determined female hollerer, I think most of us were left wondering: just where was the Passion?