We were instructed to leave our mobiles switched on. Spectators with smartphones had been encouraged to download Chirp, an app that transmits information via sound, and, evidently, most had complied: a cacophony of bleeping accompanied the entire performance, with messages such as “hello Jon”, “bleep bloop” and “Nakedness yay” continuously lighting up our touchscreens.
Irritating? Very. But that sums up The Crackle, a new opera written and directed by the electronic musician Matthew Herbert. Part of the Royal Opera House’s mini-festival Faustian Pack, this is one of two operatic commissions reimagining Goethe’s Faust. And it bends over backwards in its quest for novelty. Herbert is known for drawing on recorded sounds (gunshots, exploding bombs, squealing pigs), and he often has a philosophical message in mind. In The Crackle we hear the sounds of applause, dripping taps and the voice of the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as Mephistopheles. Add to that the electronically manipulated live score, psychedelic lighting, the distracting video element and our bleating mobile phones, and you have the makings of something truly diabolical.
Perhaps that is the point. After all, the danger of electronic technology is the subject of Herbert’s libretto: George, a school music teacher and unacknowledged genius, dreams of greatness but lives in terror of redundancy. Mephistopheles’ temptation takes the form of cutting-edge IT, namely Chirp and a new instrument known as The Dervishes. It brings George recognition, and his awestruck pupils pull up their socks. But the price is their souls.
There are valid, if clichéd, questions asked here: is new technology corrupting young people? Does technological innovation compromise music? The storyline, however, is inane. This is a Faust for teeny tots. At least, it might be, if the quasi-minimalist score wasn’t so bland, and the action so dull: several minutes tick by with barely a flicker of movement from the stage. It’s all very well to make a sociological statement, but it’s no excuse for dreary, banal and alienating theatre. And, by the way, what about those opera-goers who don’t own a smartphone?
Despite the considerable efforts of Andrew Dickinson (George), and Stephanie Marshall as his not-quite-girlfriend Susannah, the best thing about this production is Terfel’s disembodied voice. Tim Murray conducts.