Saturday, 19 March 2011

Kommilitonen! at the Royal Academy of Music

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' new opera Kommilitonen! is about the heroic, principled actions of twentieth century students. It's written as an ensemble vehicle for the student corps of the Royal Academy of Music, but, of course, serendipity keeps tabs on these things. It looks as if it could have been written to the current political agenda: a significant domestic student protest within the last four months and, as I write, the spectre of a thuggish government flexing its muscles against its own citizens give the enterprise perspective and currency.

Kommilitonen! covers the nobility of the American civil rights struggle, the hazardous heroism of anti-Nazi agitprop and the self-parodying hysteria of Mao's cultural revolution. These are ripe subjects for operatic exploitation, full of complicated, compromised moral relationships, iniquity, violence and sorrow. On the face of it Kommilitonen! should be a super vehicle for the sort of ensemble opera that benefits those studying on the opera course.

The real James Meredith at the University of Mississippi
As a showcase then it is an excellent piece of lyric theatre. The Meredith plot differs from the Nazi and Mao strands in being, essentially a monologue narration. As there is precious little genuine dialogue elsewhere in the opera, the relationship that baritone Marcus Farnsworth establishes with the audience is key to engaging with the work. It's a nicely sung, assuredly acted characterisation, clearly built on the conversational rapprochement of song recital that is the notable feature of his biography. In a sensible and appropriate postscript to the cast list, the production team acknowledge that the essence of Meredith's situation is that he was black (Farnsworth and, on alternative cast nights, Adam Marsden, are white), but claim that professional parity as well as the illusory essence of the theatre have priority, especially in a situation where none of the students is naturally of this ethnic make-up. I might also add that the narrating function of Meredith across the entire opera puts him at a remove from the realist demands of the drama anyway. It worked for me.

If there are comparable principal protagonists in the other plots, one is the soprano Aoife Miskelly (Nazi-resistant Sophie Scholl), who has a similarly confident, lieder-clear style to Farnsworth. Sophie is the prima inter pares of a quintet of students playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with a Munich populus sleepwalking into National Socialism. All five act with a convincing, endearing heightened sense of life - the agitation of adrenalin and self-claimed Freiheit.

The Mao portions of the opera are colourfully satirical, not least through some ingenious stage puppeteering. The staging is chorus-heavy, with much choreography, and includes an onstage band. Speaking for this Little Red Book wielding crowd is the zealot-perky Zhou of Ruth Jenkins, projecting voice and character right to the back of the theatre. She finds herself engaged in an exercise of non-communication with the a pair of children, orphaned by the brutalising of their academic parents. Li, the daughter (Belinda Williams) is bitterly compliant but Wu, the son, contests the new social order in the privacy of his heart, waiting for the inevitable decline of the mindlessly parroted social contract. Katie Bray characterises Wu with the quality of her sound, generous, plangent, compassionate. It is, for me, the most gripping account of a maligned individual of the evening.

Binding and offsetting this principal group are a pool of smaller roles, from which Jonathan McGovern's chameleon baritone stood out - or rather he didn't, decorously sublimating himself into his functional roles, including the voice of the Chinese father-puppet. The chorus were well-drilled not only in the score but also in a complicated sequence of ballets and blocking. If there was any heterogeny in this corporate staging it was entirely to do with the prioritising of the music (with a notably ringing tenor line), not to mention the necessary complications of a busy production on a modest stage. In addition to the on-stage band there are a number of other on-stage instrumentalists who are required to play in role, and within the score but from memory, notably the affecting Erhu of Amy Yuan.

There's little of the piece itself to criticise. Maxwell Davies is true to his word, writing stylistically but without pastiche. David Poutney manages the density of running three stories across one another well - despite the congestion of detail and ideas I never found myself losing focus. Under the sure-footed direction of Jane Glover the complexities of the score breeze past with a precision that allows the company to really show itself in its best light. Not only a worthwhile project but, uncommonly for new music, one with a great potential for a future.

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