Into the Deep Web
When the deliberations of the jury resemble a 1970s game show, music theatre's already tenuous relation to realism was stretched to its limit across the variety show that was the Darmstadt International Music Theatre Competition.
The Darmstadt Summer Course offers a number of substantial professional opportunities to emerging composers each year. This year for the first time the festival programmed a competition for music theatre works, with the winner decided by a seven-strong jury and receiving a desirable full-length opera commission from the State Theatre. With the promise of onstage jury deliberations and a special audience prize, we could expect a dose of entertainment and controversy to come.
The first of the five finalists and sole representative from the southern hemisphere was Argentinian composer Patricia Martínez's La Niña Helada, by turns monotonous and histrionic, with its action centred around the illness and possible cryogenic freezing of a couple's young daughter. Despite a deliberately pared back vocal style derived from plainchant, the work often felt crowded, its expressions of grief overstated and lacking dramatic flow. The young daughter had been frozen and silent for the duration, but in a flash of unfortunate literalism, the performance ended in her terrified shriek.
Italian composer Marta Gentilucci's The Other Side of the Skin contained some of the strongest musical moments of the evening. A a coagulation of tangled orchestral and vocal sounds ascended and seamlessly transformed into visceral electronic scrapes followed with sparseness. The two accomplished female soloists, elsewhere accompanied by a ghostly offstage chorus, walked towards each other stop-start, haltingly, their rattling vocal fry interspersed with heavy, poignant silences. Despite the confidence and textural experimentation of the piece, it was undermined by an under-developed dramaturgy: there was no good reason for the offstage chorus to suddenly bumble into the action – who were they and why were they there?
The evening's most memorable and engaging works were those that recognized a power in rejecting realism. Israeli composer Sivan Cohen-Elias evoked Laurie Anderson, Mauricio Kagel, and internet trashiness with her dark but exuberant work .onion. There was a real commitment to theatrical boldness and absurdity here: our protagonist was a speak-singing chain-smoking sailor hybrid of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Captain Haddock, trapped in a yellow tardis-like structure and partially live-streamed in enormous close-up on the back wall of the stage. At one point he repeatedly attempted to eat a slice of pizza, delivered by an androgynous messenger in a pastel green dress. Around Haddock-Stockhausen the other performers conducted a variety of coercive and at times torturous manipulations of their own and each others' instruments.
Spanish composer Abel Paúl's gyre and gimble suggested a great deal of withheld or threatening power, the stage cluttered with both conventional and novel noise-making devices. Stalking the stage were swaggering, insectoid men and women in identical garb of one-piece swimsuit, full length fur coat and six-inch heels, delivering chattering spoken aphorisms or sustaining vague vocal clusters, at times singing muffled into large tubs of water. The shiny, fluid soundscape with its flexed metal plates, piano resonance and gamut of percussive effects seemed embryonic of something more dynamic and substantial. The concise, almost ruthless denouement pointed a way forward: a powerful solo soprano swell into a clatter of tinkling spheres gave a delayed punchline to so much frail expectation.
Carsten Hennig's Selbstversuch brought the entire hardworking Staatstheater Orchestra onto the stage along with a kooky, charismatic protagonist and his two operatic doppelgangers. Invoking the spirit of György Ligeti's Le Grande Macabre, Hennig coaxed murmuring resonances and inflections from the orchestra, the instrumental music often a strange and subtle amplification or distortion of the vocal sounds. The music supported a dramaturgy that explored depths of scatological and psychological messiness, rivalling John Waters at his most smearingly kitsch. At one point the protagonist fashioned himself a dashing tin-foil corset before stuffing his bra with raw meat. The three leads were all compelling whether contorted in pain, slipping in mock blood or merely shuffling into a wall.
What followed Hennig's work was in many ways a theatre piece itself. The on-stage jury panel not only resembled a 1970s game show with spinning coloured circles projected on the back wall and impeccable (if unintentional) comic timing, but it also presented a spectacularly mismanaged trainwreck of awkward uncertainty. The very public paralysis of the jury laid bare the difficulty of awarding prizes in this X-Factor-style format. They had a hard time reaching a decision let alone agreeing on the rules or intended outcome, and most of the audience had already left bemused and bewildered when Cohen-Elias was finally announced as the jury winner.