Breath of fresh arias

Rotterdam’s Opera Days takes on the task of bringing opera to a city without an opera house. Now in its fifth year, this quirky nine-day festival is gaining a reputation for subverting the status quo.

Rather than striving to mimic conventional spaces, it poses fundamental questions about the nature of music theatre today without necessarily providing answers. Young artists, unlikely spaces, anarchistic projects, new music, and community participation all have their place.

“What’s wrong? Don’t you like our choir?” demands an earnest church warden as a colleague and I flee from a painfully sincere rendition of hymns delivered by a white-robed choir in the city’s Chinese church. An English translation is provided on a big screen, along with free plastic cups of coffee and handfuls of crisps.

We struggle to explain that we have only come to get a quick impression and are already late for the next event. We take with us a profound sense of guilt at the warden’s expression of wounded hospitality. But under what other circumstances would we, and so many Rotterdamers, have ever found our way to the low, functional hall of the Chinese church?

The white-robed choir is quite a departure from the previous event – Belgian baroque ensemble Zefiro Torna’s ravishing Ecce Homo in the airy 18th-century Paradijskerk. But these are just two of the steps on “Voices of the City”, a guided musical walk around Rotterdam’s churches. That in turn is just one of a series of events that also includes opera afternoons in living rooms, community choirs in the central town square and rappers performing alongside Indian, Iraqi, gospel and other ensembles in the city’s Schouwburg theatre.

This year’s most bizarre location, for composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven’s The Air We Breathe (City of Desire V), was the dank basement of a disused waterfront grain silo peopled with strangely solemn guards. What began as a wonderfully strange installation developed into a maverick sing-along, as Twaalfhoven’s music brought Bulgarian, Moroccan, classical and jazz singers together with schoolchildren, students and haunting electronic sounds in a concrete bunker with the icy charm of a mortuary and an underlying perfume of stale urine.

Rather less physical fortitude was required for Neil Wallace’s staging of Das Lied von der Erde in a turn-of-the-century turbine hall at Rotterdam’s Schiecentrale. Conductor/composer Reinbert de Leeuw has fashioned a new chamber music setting for Mahler’s elegiac orchestral songs that calls for 15 instrumentalists, one on harmonium. It is impressively deft in conveying the work’s broad sweep and its acerbic sense of regret. Wallace tells the songs as a series of scenes between Gustav and Alma Mahler, the former given a chilling dance with death – a gaunt, black-clad stranger – in the final bars. Tessa Joosse’s films of the natural world that surrounds the hut where Mahler wrote the piece added a meditative layer to a satisfying evening; Birgit Remmert and Yves Saelens delivered sensitive performances, every word crystal clear.

Three more orthodox music theatre performances in the festival’s opening days presented a bold spread of styles, all tipped towards the more experimental end of the scale.

In a bold vote of confidence for young talent, Nicolas Achten and Timothy Nelson’s Dido and Aeneas opened the festival. Achten, a Belgian music director well under 30, Nelson, an American stage director just over it, a young cast and a good concept formed the basis for a view of Purcell’s opera as the reflection of Dido’s inner world. Rosanne van Sandwijk was both Dido and the sorceress, Marie de Roy Belinda and one of the witches. Aeneas was played as a bemused but well-meaning husband watching helplessly as his wife spirals from psychosis to suicide, while Dido was a desperate housewife singing for her life as Achten whipped his lithe ensemble of instrumentalists along at breakneck speed.

More polished but at least as depressing was Muziektheater Transparant’s Medea, Peter Verhelst’s highly poetic retelling of the princess’s infanticide to the strains of Wim Henderickx’s mournfully atmospheric score. Paul Koek’s staging was muted and the overall tone was one of bitter lament, with thinly veiled references to contemporary Dutch cultural politics.

Another murderous woman was the subject of young composer Benedict Weisser’s quirky Penthesilea, in a self-assured staging by Lotte de Beer. As the Amazonian queen dismembered Achilles (both sung with precision and charisma by Young-Hee Kim and Alistair Shelton-Smith) and laid waste to their inner-city apartment, I found myself thinking of the destruction that funding cuts threaten to inflict on this country’s cultural life. Once slashed, programmes such as Opera Days – and the vibrancy and excitement they bring to a city – are not easily restored.

Until May 29

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