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May 27, 2012 3:47 pm
Having started life as a small-scale clone of its parent, the Linbury Theatre is increasingly finding its own identity. Rather than concentrating on chamber-sized operas that are too small for the Royal Opera House’s main stage, it has become more adventurous in commissioning new works, often venturing into other art forms.
Sum, a collection of short tales of the afterlife based on the book by David Eagleman and set to music by Max Richter, is one of the most thought-provoking so far. It is not really an opera at all, more an “installation” – just readings with a little music, lighting and film to adorn them.
For Wayne McGregor’s staging, the Linbury Theatre has been transformed into an enclosed white box. This is the waiting room where souls sit before they depart for the afterlife, and we – the audience – are the ones sitting in wait. An otherworldly glow envelops the room, enhanced by projections on the four walls. Music from the 14-piece Max Richter Ensemble, buried in a pit in the centre, seems to drift up from the world below.
The 40 tales of Eagleman’s book are vignettes of what life after death might be like. The opera selects 16 of them and, by omitting those that ponder the existence of God, it shifts the balance towards science fiction and a strangely impersonal realm reminiscent of The Matrix films. Being able to hear the words of these tales is essential and Richter has done all he can to help. Most are spoken rather than sung by three departing souls – Caroline MacPhie, Robert Enticknap and Damian Thantrey, all excellent – who sit among the audience. The music comes and goes, mostly the background restlessness of Glass’s minimalism or reflective wisps reminiscent of Satie’s Gymnopédies.
Atmosphere is everything here – the only retort to people who might complain that it would be easier and more rewarding to go away and read the book. Concentrating on the tales for an unbroken 90 minutes is not easy, especially when the singers’ heads turn and the words get lost, but Richter has shown a very subtle understanding of how to pace and accompany this unusual material. He should be invited to develop his skill further.
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