Went to see Charles Bernstein and Brian Ferneyhough's opera Shadowtime this Friday -- it was absolutely brilliant. A truly original combination of words and music which created something surprisingly different than what either of the collaborators might have done alone. Ferneyhough's lush, complexly orchestrated music evoked a range of anti-mimetic tones which complemented Bernstein's sometimes humorous, always aphoristically mystical poetry perfectly. Rather than "poetry set to music" as one usually hears in art song or jazz/beat models, here the words were frequently subordinated to the music -- they became just another element of the composition along with everything else.
The arrangements of Bernstein's words, often fragmented and dispersed among a choir of singers at varying speeds, enacted the principles of heteroglossia perfectly while at certain moments rendering the text difficult to comprehend. Sometimes the use of language was absolutely clear and fast-paced, like the delivery of a stand-up comedian; at other times it was densely layered, slowed-down, and spread out. At other times the music took center stage, as in a dramatic guitar solo which represented the rustling of the angel Gabriel's wings. Notable for its dissonances and atonalities, Ferneyhough's music displayed an elaborate structure (apparently very difficult for the musicians to play) which nevertheless sounded constantly on the verge of collapse like an improvisation.
Rather than the long serial poems Bernstein has been known for in the past which developed themes through patterned uses of the alienation effect, this libretto emerged as almost an epic poem, with an absent self at the center, dispersed through a series of mythic episodes (each of which referred obliquely to some key aspect of Benjamin's life or work). The central episode that much of the opera seemed to address was Benjamin's choice to commit suicide while attempting to cross over into Spain. The difficulty of acting and of deciding when so many paradoxes abound in thought and speech seemed essential to many of these scenarios, sometimes via the medium of jokes or the mechanisms of joking -- the gap between aesthetics and political change in Benjamin's thought being connected sometimes by his own assertion that "the coming revolution will fill it." But his revolutionary vision of messianic time is admirably engaged by Bernstein in thoughtful examinations here of the relationship between mourning and past/present/future.
Some of the high points of the production for me included the "Opus Contra Naturam" in scene 4 where "new complexity" pianist Nicolas Hodges (here cast as a Vegas or Weimar nightclub performer) intersperses the atonal expressiveness we've come to anticipate between hilarious Liberace-like flourishes up and down the keyboard while cracking perfectly-timed jokes that emerge as jerky melodic and rhythmic gestures -- this is a perfect use of Bernstein's text and it seems so natural. Other moments included the truly hallucinatory stage sets during the interrogations of Benjamin's avatar in the underworld, including a huge Cerberus figure that boasts the heads of both Karl Marx and Groucho Marx. And of course, the dismantling of the stage at the end (in which all set pieces were turned around and revealed to be wood constructions held up by supports in back) was strangely moving and alarming, and it's hard to say why.