This was certainly a unique experience. It was, for example, the first time I have ever needed 3D glasses for an opera. If the work didn’t quite succeed in firing up the imagination as much as I had hoped, it certainly explored possibilities of the mix between drama, choreography, opera and the electronic arts. Opera certainly should try new things, and as an opera that definitely does try these things (and some opera-goers patience, it seemed) this production is to be commended.
My expectation in fact was that Dai Fujikura‘s Solaris was going to be an opera adaptation of the books/films, but this was quickly challenged with the glasses, and at the brief pre-opera briefing, where we were informed that the opening overture would be graphical, not musical (hence the glasses) and more – would take place in silence. Seven whole minutes of it, in fact. A brave move, when most people can’t sit still or be quiet for more than two or three minutes!
This seven minute silent voyage to the space station and into the world of Solaris, was not a trip through fields of stars as I had anticipated. Instead it became more a restatement of Solaris the planet, itself as envisaged by Soderbergh’s film. Dense, subtly shifting patterns of granularity, movement and patterns suggested order in what at first glance looked only like chaos. Suggestions of fractality – or rather, a small pattern endlessly cycling into itself, copy and pasted or recursive across the whole screen.
Unfortunately, this seven minute odyssey became instead rather more like Coughing and Whispering With Video Accompaniment, a scenario almost Cagean in presentation. Near the close of the video projection, a definite feeling of regression: a moving away from this source – to where? Back to a reality of the staging, I think. The movement ends with the little white patterning on the screen resembling the texture of human skin. A clever move. That said, what with “the voyage” and protracted strobing later on (for about three minutes straight) I do think this piece should seriously have come with an epilepsy warning!
Not that there was that much set to stage in though. A white box, essentially, with two black wings either side. The roof of the box sometimes descended to be projected onto (as with the voyage) and as with interpolations of video. The appearance was stark, but well-lit by Saburo Teshigawara) who in fact, directs, dances, choreographed and designed costumes for this production.
Those same costumes were a little eccentric. Tynan and Melrose were both dressed all in black, Melrose in what looked like to be a cape fashioned from chickenwire, Tynan in a sort of crinoline of the same. These were shed about halfway through, as more intimacy and interaction (in the score alone, of which more in a second) developed. Despite this jarring appearance, strong performances throughout from all: professionalism and conviction the order of the day, as if the team knew the piece depended on it, which really, it did a little.
Sarah Tynan, sumptuously lyric, emoting almost despite direction, and Leigh Melrose more lantern jawed and sombre, at least until his “death and transfiguration” scene at the end, where he joins Solaris to be subsumed. Sonorously voiced, excelling whether in a whisper of in sadness, and really feeling the words – his was a fine performance of a curious text. One sense that the piece doesn’t do full justice to the cast’s full capabilities, but the result is that all seemed at ease with the writing – which was regrettably slightly mono-tempi, the libretto a little awkward. (At one moment there is a brief interchange about socks, which wasn’t too edifying to say the least. Mind you, rendered in the demotic, how many libretti are, really?)
That said, in one or two moments, it soars: Tom Randall‘s “Aphrodite” aria sounds a bit of a beast to sing: large intervallic leaps, extreme changes in dynamics and then a large declamatory section, taken at a fair clip, with a mouthful of a strange line about ascending into Aphrodite’s embrace and the like. It sounded forbidding but Randall did wonderfully.When he appeared, Callum Thrope‘s Gibarian was gloriously resonant. So too, it wasn’t all about socks. Moments of poetry, bits about being “stellar vagabonds” and little moments of love went down well.
Musically the register is jagged: stacked dischords and angular writing give a discomforting soundscape, the piece never finding any melismatic warmth or thematic narrative. Fujikura also uses electronics to make singers duet with themselves (each singer was I saw, sporting a cheek-mic) and Marcus Farnsworth was the main double here, leading to some sadly un-intelligible moments when he sung distorted by electronics, over Melrose.
Opera was only half the production. The singers were backed (as with recent Sellars’ stagings) by a team of dancers. One dancer per character illustrated their thoughts and actions. The result was something chimerical, a bit like the “visitors” made by Solaris, which haunt the humans’ dreams.
The choreographic language is manic, fluid, restless. One’s eye needed a break from time to time. The singers stand at the sides and sing, largely. The dancers…dance. Special mention must go to a Kris’s dancer, Václav Kuneš, onstage for most of the night and to Snaut’s dancer Nicolas Le Riche, who basically body popped his way through the proceedings. Hari’s double (Rihoko Sato) was less effective for me, the writing for her could have been a little softer perhaps. Teshigawara himself came out for two numbers, which felt a tad self-indulgent.
The result is curious: the singers seem to be interior monologue, full of chastening thoughts, memory, the voice of the mind. The dancer: our human forms. The effect amplifies disconnection and emphasises the pain of corporeality: in this Solaris, to suffer is to feel but not emote.
This bicameral treatment makes the whole piece feel detached. There’s a solipsistic nihility which pervades Fujikura’s Solaris – to detriment of our enjoyment. Had the two leads been able to even interact and touch each other (Boheme in Space?) I would have enjoyed it more (but then, why make the opera at all? it would be akin to stage musical versions and their films, a cynical tautology.) In this sentiment, I was perhaps not alone. Slamming parterre doors punctuated the evening.
The overall impression left by the evening is akin to watching Sellars latest creations with their melange of artistic languages. Dancers can augment action, but if the writing isn’t lucid enough, it can obscure as here, too. Overwrought writing gives sensory overload, and not as Fujikura may have wished, to make us go “woah! space station, mind blown!” but more in a “stop the evening, I want to get off” way. I prefer my evenings in one language of art only I think. Opera OR dance. Even when Sellars succeeds (as in Gospel of Other Mary) it is by great effort and careful work. Great effort and care was here in evidence too, but it needed a little more nuance.