As part of Tete a Tete’s Opera Festival this double bill entitled Life Stories: Rest in Peace and Silent Jack complimented each other very well, with through-line themes of memory, loss and time – one set in the present and one set in the past. The pieces were written and directed by Tim Benjamin with a solo performer in each (James Fisher and Taylor Wilson, respectively) and a brilliant musical ensemble lead by Anthony Brannick.
Fisher had a playful, full voice with a soft and satisfying falsetto. This wide vocal range neatly allowed him to convey several characters in this piece with very little physicality needed. This performer welcomed us, opened-armed into the brain of the homeless Ezdeyev, but due to the confusing narrative, Fisher had to work harder during the moments of transition to keep us engaged throughout. This then became a difficult line to straddle between wanting to engage us as audience members and ‘over-acting’. There were some very playful moments of the eager-eyed character who seemed inspired, physically and musically by Bottom from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially during the latter section of this piece, as he is lead on the floor in chaos.
Silent Jack was a much more engaging piece for me because of the formed narrative and sense of catharsis. Wilson gave a brilliant all-round performance. Her characterisation was engaging and genuine, and although I’m unsure why there was direct address in either piece, I believed that she truly needed something from us; whoever it was that we were cast as. Her lower register was pleasing and this voice and clear physicality took us on Amy’s journey throughout. Vocally she was strong and had a really lovely quality to the voice which lulled us further into her world. Although, like Rest in Peace, there were points where I lost the narrative – her emotional journey was clear and that alone was actually enough to carry us through. I found Wilson a very satisfying performer as she is naturally very watchable.
Both performances were good, and both singers had a stage presence that was immediately clear and captivating. There were some good little sections of movement choice in both pieces which aided the humour and storytelling component immensely. Both costumes were clearly thought through by Amy Westwood and Alexandra Ware and really aided the characterisation; especially during Taylor’s entrance when I think I could actually smell mud. There were some interesting lighting decisions executed towards the end of this piece though, as the television down stage right was, firstly, still present in the second narrative and clearly dramaturgically out of place, but it was also still on and omitting light. Although confusing, Tom Sutcliffe’s decision certainly gave a beautiful final visual with a light blue wash over Amy alongside the orchestra’s individual stand lights.
Benjamin’s composition was provocative and quite beautiful. It slowed and allowed pause, but also drove the narratives in a way that made them feel interlocked and dependent on each other. I particularly enjoyed the moments of compositional foley in the space as well, the sound and noise that did not come from instruments did not feel out of place and were pleasant surprises.
Through his directorial decisions, Benjamin seems to be asking questions about the borders of performativity in opera. How did the orchestra and singers interact? What was the relationship between singer and conductor? These questions were framed from the beginning as the orchestra were pre-set on stage drinking champagne against the back drop of what was supposed to be representative of someone sleeping rough on the street. There was a clear juxtaposition for example between Fisher’s character and the Violinist, who was dressed in a full-length elegant ball gown and were, at points, no more than a metre away from each other.
As well as the harsh and pointed costume decisions, this clear physical separation of musicians seemed counterintuitive, especially as through both pieces there were clear attempts to actually integrate – as the orchestra and conductor were given roles and offered invitations to react. For me, these decisions weren’t followed through fully, we became hyper-aware of every slight movement or glance across the space and because of this, it provoked more questions that simply made these moments feel gimmicky
This new opera offers new and exciting music performed to a very high standard by all involved. But for me, there’s still more to opera than excellent musicianship and vocal quality, and the dramatic action and coherence need to be just as rigorous to make this the truly beautiful opera it could be.
This double bill of Life Stories is playing at The Place until 22 July. For more information, tour dates and tickets, see The Place website. Photo by Radius Music.