2 Jun

What interested me most about Sum (Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House – I saw it on 28th May) was that the composer, Max Richter, described it as a chamber opera and itt struck me how far we had come from the Boulez inspired days when composers would go miles to avoid using the O word even for pieces which obviously were – “music theatre” was a favourite. And yet here was a piece that was about as far away as you could get from a conventional opera, short of removing the orchestra and the words and replacing the singers with dancers.

There is no conventional plot.  It is a setting of various extracts from: Sum; forty tales from the afterlife by David Eagleman, a neuro-scientist.  These are a group of reflections/stories about the afterlife. There are no conventional characters. The three singers clearly have personalities, as you would expect, but I couldn’t discern any particular journey or thread that led them to be given one passage than another to narrate. Structurally, the piece reminded me of a Bach cantata or something like Carmina Burana or even Schwanengesang – a group of texts set to make a convincing musical meditation rather than a dramatic piece. The singers are miked.

The orchestra is sunk in the middle of the Linbury auditorium and we are sat around it. The singers come from among us and occasionally try to interact with individuals in the audience – often failing, largely through the embarrassment of the audience member they choose. They are directed by Wayne MacGregor and you can see the choreographer in the precise, graceful movements. You also get, urgent, intelligent responses to the text. Each of the 16 numbers is accompanied by projections, abstract or concrete – often distracting from the words.

Richter’s music is very beautiful, tending towards the minimalist. On a first hearing, it struck me that there were some interesting structures and very gorgeous textures, coming from the orchestra. It is a reflective piece, with the word admirably set – clear, comprehensible and with no points where you thought he had gone for a particular line over sense.  He struck me as a very talented composer for the voice.

The performance seemed to me to be about as good as it could be. And Massey had the performance well under control and the singers – Rupert Enticknap, Caroline MacPhie and Damian Thantrey were uniformly excellent.

The real problem for me was that I found it very difficult to relate to the texts, to see why they had any connection or anything particular to say. I can see that the texts were intended as a commentary on life, providing whimsical, slightly surrealistic, sometimes mildly thought-provoking ideas on other ways in which life might be and what might happen afterwards.  I found the reflection on how long you remain alive in the memory of others struck a chord.  I am, however, the sort of person who finds this sort of reflection pretty sterile and unhelpful and I found it difficult to see the point.

It doesn’t matter, particularly, how you categorise this piece. Operas don’t have to be full of love, blood, vendettas and car chases.  I think Richter is a major talent and it was good to encounter his music.  It’s good to see artists engaging with the form and seeing how far they can take.   Even if this wasn’t, for me, a massively impressive or unforgettable experience, I’m glad I was there and who knows what it may lead to.

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