Facing Goya, Victoria Theatre, Singapore – review

Of all possible places to revisit Facing Goya, Michael Nyman’s 2002 reflection on the prickly nexus of science, commerce and the arts, few settings could rival Singapore, where those endeavours collide on a near-daily basis. Dubbed “an opera of ideas” ever since its premiere, with theories rather than emotions filling Victoria Hardie’s libretto and Nyman’s kinetic score somehow holding it all in place, Facing Goya has found an entirely new level of resonance.

On a more practical level, Tuesday’s performance marked the official reopening of Singapore’s Victoria Theatre following a four-year restoration. A repeat performance tonight opens the recently rebranded Singapore International Festival of Arts after a two-year hiatus.

Ong Keng Sen, director of the festival as well as the production, retains the story’s original crux: the “legend” that the 19th-century painter Francisco Goya had his head removed after death to prevent researchers from stealing his brain. In modern-day London, an Art Banker searching for Goya’s skull continually encounters various scientific ideals of measuring intelligence and replicating it by genetic means, expressed and embodied by a quartet of singers.

The references, though, have now been noticeably refocused, with fewer scientists quoted and less ricocheting between time frames, making the transition from 19th-century brain theory to Nazi racial profiling to modern-day genetic engineering seem not just logical but inevitable. Nyman’s score is, if anything, even tighter, with Austin Switser’s visual projections adding a welcome layer of rhythmic counterpoint, occasional images of Adolf Hitler notwithstanding. Facing Goya still shuns traditional narrative, but compared with the standards of, say, Robert Wilson (whose Peter Pan with the Berliner Ensemble appears at Sifa later this month) Ong’s production is a picture of structural coherence.

Perhaps the most notable change comes through in performance style. Nyman’s 2002 recording is marked by an almost clinical flatness of sound. This Goya, seeming less like science fiction by now than pure science, trades its intellectual sheen for a distinctly human perspective. Conductor John Kennedy led Singapore Symphony Orchestra players in soaring musical lines wedded to a propulsive rhythmic intensity. Patently racist eugenic theories were articulated by a racially mixed cast (sopranos Anne-Carolyn Bird and Aundi Marie Moore, tenor Thomas Michael Allen and baritone Museop Kim). Any futuristic coolness was further undercut by mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán, whose winning presence as the Art Banker relied mostly on old-fashioned vocal technique and a time-honoured dramatic conviction with the text.


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