running until 10 December
Jonathan Woolgar, previous winner of the BBC Young Composer’s competition back in 2010, has teamed up with soprano Heloïse Werner to present a reflection on endings and grief – from individual loss to the end of the universe. It’s an ambitious project and showcases Werner’s versatility and boldness, yet the show is too conceptual and undefined to provoke real emotion.
Werner’s voice is undeniably powerful, a rich soprano that reverberates around the small black box of the Tristan Bates and grabs our attention immediately. With an innovative use of percussion, she creates a varied solo soundscape. Her poise and almost confrontational, open stare are also arresting: she engages us at once and from the opening moments, I was intrigued about this solo performer. However, the content of the next 45 minutes soon left me adrift.
The show is divided into segments exploring the end of the universe, the end of humanity and the loss of an individual. The first two in particular are such overwhelmingly weighty ideas that it is hard to find your way into them through Woolgar’s experimental and atonal musical environment, which strives to encompass complex ideas of finality and grief, yet struggles to capture them in its high-concept style that lacks enough substantial content to create a deep emotional (or intellectual) response. Every so often quotations from a range of authors – from Edna St Vincent Millay to to T.S Eliot to Shakespeare – appear on a screen behind Werner, but they don’t add much clarity to this show’s obscurity.
The third section, a manifestation of individual grief, is the most successful in connecting with the audience. Werner’s silent but contorted face conveys the pain of trying to come to terms with immense loss and the softer, tremulous vocal passages begin to reach into the emotional depths I was looking for throughout. By lighting the audience as well as performer, the show begins to create a shared experience and a feeling of warmth that moves away from the earlier remoteness.
This one-woman contemporary opera feels like it has been built around a single, bold idea, lacking enough defined content, narrative or character exploration to realise it. The music and performance grasp at grandeur and the sublime but never quite get there, leaving me lost in Woolgar’s discordant sounds and fractured composition. Perhaps this is one to file in the ‘just not for me’ folder, as there are certainly others out there who love the show, but I would like to see Werner’s obvious talents given an opportunity to shine in something more coherent.
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N.B. Since writing this review, I was informed of technical difficulties on the night, which meant some elements of the show were missing. This is a review of the press night performance, while other performances featured additional material. All credit to Heloïse Werner for performing through the technical difficulties!