Opera Review

Per Nørgård: Nuit des Hommes Almeida Theatre, London 12-15 July, 2000 (RW)

The 2000 Almeida Opera season offered a varied triptych. If pride of place goes to Per Nørgård's Nuit des Hommes, this is partly in recognition of the composer's achievement in opera which had previously gone unrecognized in this country. As with his symphonies, Nørgård's 'operas' - the term must be used advisedly - span the greater part of his career: the full-on cultural confrontation of 1963's The Labyrinth; the investigations into the melodic and harmonic properties of the 'infinity series' in 1972's Gilgamesh; the wide-ranging synthesis of opera and ballet in 1979's Siddharta; and the immersion in the musical and psychological world of Swiss schizophrenic Adolf Wölfli in 1982's The Divine Circus.

Nuit des Hommes, completed in 1996, is what Nørgård has modestly referred to as "… an opera of sorts …", and in terms of forces and presentation, it is perhaps his most radical yet. Two singers, male and female, take on three roles each, as well as chorus, over the course of 65 minutes, augmented by two violins, viola, cello and percussion doubling electronic keyboards. The prologue, two acts - of twelve and five scenes respectively - and epilogue flow into one another, at times hectically, so that continuity is maintained over contrasts in mood and impact. The text is derived, by the composer and Jacob F. Schokking, from the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, whose surreal and emotionally-heightened take on the atrocities of World War One has inspired numerous composers, notably Shostakovich in his Fourteenth Symphony.

Synoptically, the work surveys the historical conditions in Europe that lead to the outbreak of war in 1914, and the overwhelming self-belief and self-righteousness that engenders conflict and collapse. The singers assume complementary roles: in Act One - 'everyman' Wilhelm and Alice, Soldier and War Correspondent; in Act Two, Soldier and Kali, the jingoist and personification of war lust, whose stark repeated cry, 'demain l'assault', marks the musical and theatrical climax. The ending is one of recognition - of what has occured and of what will now follow.

It's a credit to Nørgård and Schokking's collaboration that words, music and action interact seamlessly, to create a theatre piece unified in expressive focus. One of the principal means is the use of visuals: projecting onto a back screen not only a graphically-conceived English realization of the text, but also the protagonists filmed offstage and by themselves. This multiplicity of images is a living embodiment of the aural drama as it develops, something with immense consequences for the future of opera and music theatre in general. The sole prop was a suspended projectile lowered at specific points, functioning as dining table and war machine as required.

Helge Rønning and Helene Gjerris were commanding as the protagonists, while Kaare Hansen directed the above-stage ensemble - percussion to left, strings to right - with immediacy. Lighting and amplification were viscerally responsive to the drama. All in all, a triumph for the Almeida and a vindication of Nørgård's theatrical and dramatic prowess. A revival soon, please.

Richard Whitehouse


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