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Thursday 3 October 2013

The Wasp Factory at ROH

UK Premiere

Already premièred at the Bregenz Festival, Ben Frost's new opera is an ROH co-commission with a libretto by David Pountney based on Iain Banks' first novel The Wasp Factory. First things first: though we're meant to believe in our post modern age that the boundaries between musical genres are being eroded daily, this opera does not belong to the genre of classical music. The miked singers sing in a pop style reminiscent of Björk and nu-folk - if they are operatically trained, they are able to hide it totally. Frost's score too is redolent of Björk, various contemporary film composers, and more generally that subgenre of electronic music that draws heavily on classical influences. The clue is that the music deals almost exclusively in rhythm and texture, the live string quintet playing repetitive cells, blending with ambient electronic sounds pumped into the auditorium as the three women sing their close harmony cantilenas above it all.

As a result, the core classical audience of the ROH will probably find the music inoffensively pleasant at best and deathly dull at worst. It's perfectly valid in my opinion to do an opera in the music of another style, and this joins Eric Whitacre's electronic opera as a foray into this particular genre (though is a classier venture than Whitacre's catchy kitsch fest), but it's strange that the ROH commissioned it. Having been part of the organisation that commissioned it, and it being very much a known quantity since it has already been premiered, The ROH marketing department will no doubt have been advertising this in electronic music magazines and far away from their usual audience, to people who will actually enjoy this - so many of my friends who don't really "do" classical music would love this. 

Banks' novel is in some ways a strange one to adapt given that it's all narrated by one character, and contains a twist which would be all but impossible to achieve in an opera house. But George Benjamin's operas, particularly his first one Into the Little Hill, have set a precedent for unconventional opera narration, and The Wasp Factory continues this experimental presentation of narrative, by having the text sung jointly by three women singing in harmony, interspersed with solos vocal sections. It generally works fine, and all three women (Lieselot De Wilde, Jördis Richter, Mariam Wallentin) sing very well within their vocal genre, though they are occasionally hard to understand over the electronic enhancement. Eventually the lack of dynamic and expressive range, and impersonal delivery, made losing concentration an easy thing to do.

Frost's production (he is the director as well as the composer) is very non literal - the three women start the opera buried in earth, which extends to cover a large, dark platform, framed with a strip of light. Things are discovered, buried and rediscovered in the earth, and over the course of the evening, as the women creep around it, the whole edifice begins to tilt, gradually shedding its loamy load. Simple but strong. Lucy Carter's lighting design supports the action admirably, adding hugely to the atmosphere of Mirella Weingarten's fine set.

Overall, the music doesn't convince me, and so I was a little bored, but for those more predisposed to the pop/electronic aesthetic, there is probably enough interesting stuff here to warrant a visit. I do actually like the best electronic music, but valiant effort though this is, in my opinion it remains to be seen whether the genre can sustain a musical-dramatic narrative over an entire evening.

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