In a dimly lit room strewn with underwear he lies back on his bed, silently gazing at her. She holds out her hand; they dance but don’t touch. They can’t. She is flesh and blood; he is a recorded image on a screen.
A Love Unsung, the new work by the Dutch composer Robert Zuidam, is just what you might expect at Rotterdam’s Opera Days, which specialises in defying expectations. This year the Dutch festival opened in a vast submarine hangar, and incorporated birdwatching in its programme. But amid the clowning it continues to pose serious questions. How do we define “opera”? Is it even still a viable label?
These issues come to the fore in A Love Unsung, which contains no singing at all. Instead, four female instrumentalists embody the main role of the “muse” who inspires a composer to achieve artistic success, only to leave him unable to function when their relationship dissolves. All dressed in bridal gowns, the quartet glides across the stage, intermittently whispering, laughing, and engaging in furious musical dialogue. Behind them on three screens, the figure of the composer (actor Johan Leysen) looms, interrupting the onstage action in spoken Dutch, frustratingly delivered without surtitles.
Nevertheless, the result is a moving study of love and loneliness, enhanced by the superlative playing of oboist Marieke Schut, violinist Jellantsje de Vries, violist Liesbeth Steffens and cellist Doris Hochscheid. But what really makes it is Zuidam’s score, which hauntingly underlines the spirit of the visuals.
Equally ambitious is Soselo in Siberia, a new piece by the 33 ⅓ Collective. Two years ago the Dutch company caused a stir with its unique take on Bluebeard’s Castle, a so-called “digital opera” that replaced live onstage action with video projection and computer animation. On paper, Soselo in Siberia seems even more promising. Advance publicity hinted at the influence of Mikhail Bulgakov and, intriguingly, Soselo, which was Stalin’s pseudonym in his poetry-writing youth.
But what we get instead is an abstract meditation on the suicide of Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Stalin’s second wife, told through a nightmarish series of computer-generated images: bloodied, dismembered fingers, snow-covered Siberian wasteland, disembodied red hands and, most persistently, an open coffin containing Alliluyeva’s corpse.
It is disturbing, at times spectacular, not unlike a Salvador Dalí painting in motion, but oddly hollow. The onstage characters have no depth, personality, or clear identity. And the music, a noisy hybrid of pop and folk, is equally soulless – albeit enthusiastically played by the Rosa Ensemble. Between its feats of technological acrobatics, Soselo in Siberia leaves no room for humanity.
Nor is it the wackiest this festival gets. In Elizabeth Dunn’s Flyway, audiences are given headphones and binoculars, then dispatched on a guided tour of the city, stopping every so often to admire a passing pigeon, or to peer at a screen displaying footage of birds. Notwithstanding its soothing soundtrack of birdsong and electronics, this could be mistaken for a relaxing nature trail.
Even the ostensibly conventional is served with a twist. One recital featured the Kazakh-American tenor Timur Bekbosunov – best known for his unique brand of “punk opera” – in a selection of classical excerpts. He gave us histrionic gesture at its most flamboyantly kitsch, implausible enough in Edison Denisov’s settings of six Pushkin texts; hilarious in the aria “His Mighty Arm” from Handel’s Jephtha. But then opera with a straight face is hardly this festival’s speciality. Long may that continue.