With plenty of slapstick and drama, the unlikely subject of childbirth makes for great opera
By Paul Driver
From TimesOnline.co.uk - June 25, 2006
There is a lot of death in opera, but remarkably little about birth. Yet parturition, once stripped of taboos that forbid discussing it, still less depicting it theatrically, cries out for operatic treatment. It is, after all, a version of that passionate self-declaration without which characters do not plausibly sing, rather than speak, on stage; and is a chance, too, to redress the operatic balance by which heroines are more often abused than exalted. I can think of only one opera where birth is a central issue: Janacek’s Jenufa, certainly no tale of kindness to single mothers. Thanks to the Tête à Tête company, we can now enjoy an opera in which birth is given no fewer than six times.
Push!, by David Bruce and the playwright Anna Reynolds, directed by Bill Bankes-Jones, was unveiled at Riverside Studios and comprises two short acts (nine scenes) that veer marvellously between comedy and tragedy, the slapstick and the serious. On Tim Meacock’s maternity-ward set, with its colourful swing doors and its cupboards hiding vacuum cleaners, Nimmy gives birth among football supporters as though trying to score a goal; Mary, rearing up at the apex of a great tent, produces talkative quintuplets as building workers take over the operation (both women played by Helen Withers). Cara (Rachel Hynes), recumbent in a paddling pool, is assisted by deep-sea divers; Maddy (Tara Harrison), a baby-batterer, gives birth chained to a policeman as foster parents wait in the wings; and Angela (Louise Mott) rejoices that her stillborn son is with the angels after whom she is named.
Between these scenes, we watch a cleaner (Jacqueline Miura) and caretaker (Mark Richardson) wielding their Hoovers and Dysons. It is an affecting moment when the caretaker sits up with the baby (a flashing jelly baby in an incubator) that will die. The beautiful lamentation of the Angela scene follows, but the work moves to an affirmative close as the cleaner herself has a baby (with the caretaker), and the refrain becomes, as it were, the final verse. Miura rose to her occasion magnificently — but so did all the singers. They had much to spur them on, for what marks out the opera is the composer’s relish for warmly singable lines and the expressive possibility of ensembles. This is emphatically not a “sung play”. Reynolds’s text is, in any case, a model of concision.
Economy is the ruling principle of Bruce’s score for 13 players. With its dabs of accordion, hints of piano riff, one might take it at first for skilful Gebrauchsmusik (utility music), but then come piccolo-flashes of Janacek, violin descants that glisten significantly, subtly swelling brass and a touchingly unexpected use of recorders. (They give the work its final sounds.) There is depth here as well as surface, and a sense of tonal pacing that is more than merely “effective”. When Maddy sings of “loving no one, loved by none”, there is a chord change on the last word to clinch the matter. The conductor, Tim Murray, ensured that it did.
The Spitalfields Festival, which ended on Friday, does not deal in the sensational, nor spring undue surprises on its faithful adherents, yet always seems a fresh, strong growth. The main novelty of recent times was the move from Christ Church, necessitated by the refurbishment of Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, but it had the happy consequence of bringing up Wilton’s Music Hall as an alternative base. There, I caught part of a recital by two festival regulars, the “period” violinist Rachel Podger and the forte-pianist Gary Cooper. They played Mozart’s dramatic E minor sonata, K 304, and Beethoven’s assuaging “Spring” sonata, Op 24, in a way that made it impossible to separate brilliance from thoughtfulness, precision (fantastic keyboard roulades) from a sweeping sense of architecture. I don’t always want to hear this repertory in these thinned-down sonorities, but such manifest musicality — one always wants that.
An entrancing event at Christ Church was a 45-minute sequence given by the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble under the Master of the Queen’s Music. Peter Maxwell Davies’s own Four Instrumental Motets were interleaved with three pieces by RAM composers for the same forces, a sotto voce combination with which Davies transformed his 16th- century Scottish originals for the Fires of London in the 1970s. It was a time when his ear, sensitised by the island sounds of his new Orkney home, was at its most instrumentally fastidious. He works an evanescent magic with a splash of celesta, gurgle of marimba, whisper of guitar. The other items, all accomplished, by Jordan Hunt, Elspeth Brooke and Maxim Bendall, were uncannily able to inhabit this remote terrain without sacrificing individuality. The performances were taut and impressive.
It was poignant to hear the cellist holding his own in a Davies solo against World Cup shouting from the Ten Bells over the street.