An opera by Ferneyhough,
who once described opera as "an
inherently dirty medium", must
come as a complete surprise. Shadowtime
is no ordinary opera in the generally
accepted sense. There is very little
action as such. The first scene, provocatively
subtitled Prologue, is the only part
of the work that may vaguely resemble
an operatic tableau. Its six "levels"
invoking various periods of Walter Benjamin’s
life up to the moment in 1940 when he
tried to escape from France through
Spain are superimposed rather than chronologically
The second scene Les
Froissements d’Ailes de Gabriel
is a concerto for guitar and ensemble,
with neither words nor action, accompanying
the projection of images in real time.
The music is made of 128 small fragments
played continuously . "We are continually
thrown back and forth ... between realizing
we need to attempt to understand the
next texture, but not having entirely
understood where to place the previous
texture or the one before that"
(the composer’s words). This typical
Ferneyhough statement belies the real
impact of what is probably the most
readily accessible music in the entire
The third scene (The
Doctrine of Similarity), consisting
of thirteen canons for vocal ensemble
and instruments, has Benjamin’s shadow
(or "avatar") reflecting on
the nature of history, time and transformation.
The fourth scene Opus Contra Naturam,
subtitled "Descent of Benjamin
into the Underworld"), is "a
shadow play for speaking pianist"
(Charles Bernstein) located in a fictional
place between Las Vegas and 1920s Weimar.
Why Las Vegas, I hear someone ask. "...
because Las Vegas seems to me to be
the hyper-simulation of the world ...
and the main [portal] of the Underworld".
Ferneyhough’s words left me none the
The fifth scene (Pools
of Darkness, subtitled "Eleven
Interrogations"), like the third
scene, consists of eleven short sections,
a "quick run through the entire
history of Western music, from about
the year 1000 up to about 1825"
(Brian Ferneyhough). These two scenes
may be a tribute to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.
Benjamin’s avatar is interrogated by
a series of masked, haunting figures,
as diverse as Karl Marx and Groucho
Marx, Pope Pius XII, Joan of Arc, Adolf
Hitler, Albert Einstein and the Golem,
to mention a few, each interrogation
being set in a particular musical form,
such as Passacaglia, Hoquetus, Dramatic
Madrigal a Due, Fugato, etc., in a Scherzo
of sorts. The title of the sixth scene
(Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing
the Angel of History as Melancholia)
alludes to Dürer’s engraving showing
"a dejected, winged figure, surrounded
by instruments of scientific enquiry"
(Charles Bernstein). Once again, the
source of words is wide-ranging; so,
for example, tableaux 1 and 4 are reworkings
of poems by Heine, whereas Tableau 3
is "based on permutations of phrases
from Benjamin’s essay Hashish in
Marseilles and Tableau 5 "a
set of imaginary epigrams".
The final scene (Stelae
for Failed Time) is again in two
layers: one reflecting on time and uncertainty,
and the other on representation (Charles
Bernstein). The concluding scene, the
opera’s epilogue, also has Ferneyghough’s
‘real’ voice "fading in a sort
of spatialized spiral, which goes on
quite a long time" (the composer’s
This brief and sketchy
summary actually says very little about
what is going on in the piece, but clearly
hints (I hope!) at the complexity, sometimes
verging on obscurity or esoterics. Shadowtime
is no ordinary opera. All the scenes,
apart from the outer ones, may be performed
separately as concert works, in much
the the same way as the various parts
of Carceri d’Invenzione.
Charles Bernstein’s libretto is conspicuously
devoid of dramatic elements, so that
the work may rightly be described as
a "thought opera", to quote
Bernstein’s phrase. Is it an opera at
all? I suppose that the question must
remain open for the time being.
Musically, it is as
absorbing as anything else in this composer’s
output. No easy stuff, for sure, often
thought-provoking and starkly uncompromising;
but I found the whole less strongly
compelling than some other Ferneyhough
pieces such as the impressive, if equally
obscure Transit - of which
a re-issue of Decca’s earlier recording
made during the LP era is long overdue
- or the string quartets. For whatever
reason, the music does not grab me by
the scruff of the neck, as it so often
does. I found myself curiously uninvolved,
though by no means bored.
What might be taken
for a lukewarm appreciation has nothing
to do with the excellent performance
that this terribly demanding piece receives.
I really admire the conviction and commitment
of all the musicians involved, while
being strongly impressed by Ferneyhough’s
uncompromising intellect. I do not in
the least question the composer’s sincerity
and integrity, but I simply think that
he is asking too many things from his
potential audience. I recently came
across another Ferneyhough disc (Stradivarius
STR 33694) in which the insert notes’
author, Alessandro Melchiorre, wrote
that "listening to Brian Ferneyhough’s
music, falling under its spell, is like
accepting an invitation to enter a labyrinth".
I found this an apt description. This
is music that leads you through many
unexpected turns and twists towards
some mysterious goal only known to the
composer; but the experience is well
worth the effort.
In short, I am still
not sure whether I like the piece, or
whether it really works as an opera.
However, it is undoubtedly a major work,
not easily grasped as a whole, that
does not yield its secrets easily. It
will need many repeated hearings as
well as close study of the libretto.
Unfortunately this is not reprinted
in the excellent insert notes by Fabrice
Fitch though we do get Bernstein’s synopsis
as well as comments by the composer,
from all of which I have generously
and unashamedly quoted. The libretto
and other information may be found on
A major release of
a major work, but be prepared to face
something quite unusual.