Rhinegold Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey
Peter Schöne as Josuke Misugi in The Hunting Gun by Thomas Larcher at Aldeburgh Festival 2019

Claire Jackson

Review: Opera at Aldeburgh 2019

2:34, 18th June 2019

Opera at Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings

Review by Claire Jackson

Thomas Larcher’s The Hunting Gun, first performed at the Bregenz Festival in the composer’s native Austria last summer, received its UK premiere on 7 June at Aldeburgh Festival, where Larcher is one of three artists in residence. Two members of the original cast reprised their roles – Giulia Peri (as Midori) and Sarah Aristidou (Shoko) – this time joined by Samuel Boden (poet), Peter Schöne (Josuke Misugi) and Iris van Wijnen (Saiko), performing alongside the newly formed Knussen Chamber Orchestra and the luminous EXAUDI, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth.

The Hunting Gun is based on a novella of the same name by Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue. It tells the story of a poet who receives a letter. As he reads, Josuke Misugi appears, presenting three letters from three different women: his wife, Midori, who wants a divorce, Shoko, Misugi’s niece, who informs him she knows of his affair with Saiko, who writes to say she is suicidal over the revelation of their extra-marital activities.

Larcher’s score bristles with timbral curiosities such as prepared piano, celeste and unidentifiable percussion, which the programme note reveals to be a mixing bowl and a biscuit tin. The vocal lines are often highly complex; Aristidou is pushed to the limits of her range to create the high-pitched wails of a teenage girl. Schöne and van Wijnen’s post-coital aria intertwines both voices to great effect.

There is no interval, and the staging is fixed into a series of zones centred around an oversized white box (similar to Garsington Opera’s The Skating Rink, 2018). The creative use of space, plus glorious vocal and orchestral acrobatics, are rather let down by a sagging libretto, which meanders into poorly functioning vignettes (it’s never made clear that we are in post-war Japan, for example). In the end, it was difficult to feel much for any of the lead characters, despite the tremendous musical performances.

Liselot De Wilde & Tibo Vandenborre in LOD muziektheater’s 2018 production of Icon (Picture credit: Kurt van der Elst)

Far more impressive, in so many ways, was Icon, a co-production between various European arts groups including Théâtre de la Ville de Luxembourg, AskolSchönberg Amsterdam and Snape Maltings. For this, the UK premiere, the Britten Studio was transformed into an ‘in the round’ setting, with vast screens that cocooned the audience.

Icon is part opera, part sound installation, and photography taken in real-time is a key feature – the images were projected on the screens throughout the performance. Sabryna Pierre’s imaginative libretto reimagines the legend of the woman who was pulled out of the River Seine in the 19th century, whose face so captivated the pathologist at the Paris morgue he made a death mask, which went on to become an emblem of bohemian Europe.

Soprano Liselot De Wilde gave an incredible performance as our icon, handling Frederik Neyrinck’s tricky score in the most challenging of circumstances: laid on her back, in nude underwear, while being photographed. At times the camera focused on her mouth, broadcasting a dentist’s close-up around the room (following on from English National Opera’s head cameras in last season’s Salome). The 75-minute work asks important questions about our veneration of youth, beauty and self-promotion.

Short opera Drive-by Shooting takes the form of an animated video (Picture credit: Beki Smith)

Elsewhere, the short installation Drive-by Shooting impressed for its witty presentation and score by Brian Irvine. Originally created for a cycle of five short operas inspired by Dublin, Drive-by Shooting is a comic tale of a septuagenarian woman who plots her revenge on her husband whom she has discovered is having an affair. (I know, I know: another opera about a scorned woman.) The opera takes the form of an animated video with the audience listening via headphones. Passers-by were intrigued and amused to see the words ‘shoot the fecker in the pecker’ temporarily appear on the beautiful brickwork building at Snape.

Aldeburgh Festival runs until 23 June

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