In the programme for Between Worlds, Tansy Davies’ debut opera written with librettist Nick Drake, based on the events of 9/11, the composer writes that she was ‘driven by the desire to transform or transcend’ and that ‘our work must aim to match the power of the darkness, with light’.
In its world premiere performance at the Barbican Theatre (the piece is a co-commission with the ENO) the opera ended with chest-beating chorus holding candles in the darkness after the two towers have fallen. However, little about the work was redemptive or transcendent.
Davies’ score, whilst intricate and dense, is a plain presentation of the brutal reality of human loss and mass destruction. It is a fascinating multi-layered and industrial beast full of bass trembles, twanged strings and slowly shifting drone-like harmonics.
The opera’s three dramatic layers – ground-level chorus, individuals trapped in the tower, and the figure of the shaman – are divided over three floors in Michael Levine’s set, and interact with each other at key dramatic moments. Davies says that this traces ‘lines of love’ between worlds; Drake’s libretto was inspired by the last messages left on voicemail by those in the tower.
However, the most affecting moments of Between Worlds were those of anguish; the realisation that family or lovers will never reunite. The figurative and musical reuniting of those separated by that monstrous act of violence was too abstract and metaphorical to be redemptive.
Davies’ plainly expressive and highly affecting vocal writing was a revelation. Yet in chorus, complex polyphony meant many of the words were indistinct – inexcusable in a piece about last messages of love.
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ENO’s current financial situation makes the production of controversial new operas very difficult. It has therefore had to find ways of balancing the books, and satisfying its masters at Arts Council England, whilst retaining artistic standards.
One solution is the planned conversion of its foyer to commercial space. Another is the programming of more populist works with star attraction, including the excellent production of Sweeney Todd with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, and an upcoming Pirates of Penzance directed by Mike Leigh.
With the Royal Opera House announcing a 2015-16 season full of new commissions and productions (including Pleasure, a new work by Mark Simpson about a toilet attendant in a gay club in northern England), the ENO faces a fight to steady its ship and retain its reputation for artistic innovation.