Down the rabbit hole
Brian Ferneyhough: Shadowtime
Nicolas Hodges (piano/speaker), Mats Scheidegger (guitar)
Jurjen Hempel (conductor)
Neue Vocalsoloisten Stuttgart, Niew Ensemble
The Coliseum was built as a music hall and the ENO, its resident company, has a generally distinguished tradition of opera productions that work as theatre, popular Traviatas and Bohèmes of considerable quality as well as powerhouse experiments, some of which also pack the audience in. Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime, a non-representational study of the life and ideas of Walter Benjamin, may be the only nominal opera that really doesn't belong there. This brought-in single "concert" performance attracted a smallish audience that shrank sharply at every opportunity; one or two people may have left after reading the programme, although others were probably encouraged by a one-man demonstration against the work outside the theatre. There may have been other factors in the desertions: the evening was unpleasantly muggy, and the Piccadilly line was still out of action after the London bombings, so some had to get unaccustomed buses. But the Coliseum really didn't seem the right place for a reflection on representation, with special reference to key texts and ideas in German national identity. If you look through a proscenium arch, you expect to see something happening.
Even in the concert hall, Brian Ferneyhough's work is, well, work. A humanities graduate can probably get some purchase on the core ideas in Shadowtime with a bit digging around in deep memory, but both text and music are geometrically intricate. Some parts have a presumably epiphenomenal surface appeal: the second scene (of seven), Les Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel, is a guitar concerto in which the soloist depicts the fluttering of the angel's wings as Benjamin is translated into the underworld or afterlife of representation exploration (identified with Messianic time or the end of history). The fourth scene is a melodrama for piano soloist, who, according to the programme, represents the guide who leads Benjamin through Plato's cave down to the underworld of shock-induced paralysis. As performed by Nicolas Hodges, it was an amusing, self-mocking jeu d'esprit, with just enough camp to suggest the implied Weimar chansonnier. And the sixth scene, also spoken by Hodges, has texts, like all the rest by the poet Charles Bernstein, that have an Alice-in-Wonderland style playfulness as they push at various kinds of translation and poetic representation – anagrams, homophonic translation, numerical form, transformation of a single line. But a fair number of the audience seem to have held out for the promising looking fifth scene and been disappointed: Benjamin's interrogation by key German figures and figures of his time included a monster with two Platdeutch head, Karl and Groucho Marx, but it wasn't remotely funny, even when Karl said "Why a duck".
It is probably unfortunate, though, that the Coliseum audience didn't get to see the production from Munich. The stage directions suggest a dramatic, although not narrative, aspect that might have made things more coherent, or at least provided some interest in the more plinky-plonky sections. And it is easy to make fun of Ferneyhough, whose expansive ambitions are often hard to disentangle from pretension, at least for the understated British: the concert performance exposes the text and music without any integration. Shadowtime is almost certainly a substantial work, but few ordinary punters would want to see it more than once. In spite of a skilled orchestral performance by the Niew Ensemble, this non-staging was not the ideal way to see it for the only time.