Scenes from  Void

Thu 10th – Sat 12th November 2016


Cameron Wallis

at 12:28 on 11th Nov 2016



Scenes from a Void tries to appeal to a particular aesthetic. An aesthetic that is, quite frankly, deeply disturbing. There are times in the piece when one half expects hell fire to leap up, and the devil to appear saying, “You called?” Many people will not enjoy the score’s inharmonious style, and those who do enjoy such matter will be disappointed by a badly rehearsed ensemble.

I suspect that there is not enough room in the cramped Corpus Playroom for the music to have the effect it is intended to. In a larger theatre, with some form of visual interest beyond the clarinetist’s dancing eyebrows — if only a slightly less scruffy looking cast — the effect may be completely different. As it is, the music is full of dissonant atonalisms, relentless diminished 7th chords, micro-tonal movements, and a perpetual fear of resolving any cadences, which though at first is exciting, quickly becomes exhausting in its sheer relentlessness. It’s just noisy. Because the music and audience are never given enough room to breathe, it never seems to go anywhere — everything just seems loud and clashy. It soon feels like one is being subjected to a bizarre form of torture.

This barrage of sound does not allow any motifs to come through the mix. Thus one does not even leave the theatre disturbed but with a haunting motif hooked in your head. The fresh air simply comes as an enormous breath of relief. It is enough to renew anyone’s faith in God, if hellfire is anywhere near as torturous as this modern opera.

The first half was terrible enough, but following a 2 minute interval (where all that could be heard was the slightly elevated pulse of an audience desperate to escape a very claustrophobic performance) came something completely different: the unfathomably disastrous second half. This featured a strange spoken, rap-bit which was so awful it was actually comical. The poor mix of the setup meant only a few of the words could be heard. Yet I can say with reasonable confidence that the words “urban” and, my particular favourite, “groceries” were spat out by the singers in a sort of Eminem meets Alban Berg catastrophe.

However, even if we accept the music’s avant-garde aesthetic — a sort of mimicry of expressionists like Arnold Schoenberg — the production itself lets down David Roche’s adventurous score. The performance felt under-rehearsed. Its morose, funeral-clad musicians — each, individually, clearly accomplished in his or her own right (though utterly cataclysmic in this dreadful ensemble) — seen wincing at the overall effect of the music. Their glum expressions were entirely forgivable, as I can imagine that rehearsing such music of the occult for any length of time must take its toll.

The lead female soprano has a lovely voice, her tone rounded and evidently well-trained. Unfortunately the male tenors who occasionally accompanied her were unable to rival this performance, their voices undistinguished, and at times, nasal. What’s more, their sporadic standing up and sitting down had a bathetic effect. Some members of the audience were choking down laughter at this particular aspect of the show.

The instrumentalists are clearly talented performers in their own right, but the conductor did not do an incredible job bringing them all together: in particular the clarinetist, lead violinist and flutist have parts demanding extremely virtuosic playing. But the ensemble does not gel well. Stabbed chords are mistimed, singers mumble and stumble over words they seem never to have read before, occasionally uttering little groans when they mistime an entry. And they all just seemed depressed. In music as avant-garde as this, music that has clearly been written with great passion, it is imperative that the performers play with enthusiasm and seeming ease. Instead it feels like this is the first time they have ever played it.

With an opera as experimental as this one, it really must be polished within an inch of its life. It is not. One does not leave the theatre thinking, “Gosh, how clever,” or “Wow, what a treat for the ears,” or even “Sounded weird, but I’ve never heard anything like it.” When I left I did not feel like I had been on an emotional rollercoaster; I felt like I had sat through an hour of noise. Perhaps, in the same way that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was largely met with hostility and only later revered for its ingenuity, the world is not quite ready for Scenes from a Void. However, I suspect that there will always be only a very niche market for this show, particularly in Cambridge post-Week Five Blues.


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