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Vita Nuova \ LPO \ Jurowski \ Martynov

February 19, 2009

It was an opera, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

In theory, world premieres of anything must surely come with a selection of must-haves including an incomprehensible sound listened to by a confused audience engaging in an internal dialogue about the cost of their ticket, their proximity to the exit and the time of the next train home.

Tonight’s world premiere of Vladimir Martynov’s Vita Nuova (New Life) at London’s Royal Festival Hall might have contained all of these things. One member of the audience was seen walking swiftly out of the auditorium part way through the first half.

The majority of the audience remained throughout the entire performance however, despite what might have seemed on paper at least as an evening of challenging and impenetrable music. After all, if you know you’re going to listen to some new music by a relatively unheard of Russian composer who has in his past explored the avant-garde and serial technique, you’re going to make certain assumptions before you get to the concert hall.

In fairness, there had been a reasonable amount of explanation of Martynov’s musical influences and his intentions for the composition of his opera before the event. It certainly felt like that. But maybe I was just homing in on all the information I could find about the work before I attended it. I do like to go prepared if I’m about to hear something for the first time.

On Thursday 13 February, two days before the assembled company of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, soloists and Europachoraakademie began rehearsing for tonight’s performance, conductor Vladimir Jurowski hedged his bets on what the audience reaction might be in an interview with Tom Service for the Guardian

“ … to be honest, it could end up being a total misunderstanding – or the beginning of a very interesting discussion … Some people will find it confusing, even disgusting. Others, I am sure, will find this piece a revelation.”

It’s difficult to know how anyone would have been disgusted by the work or the performance. Confusion too was unlikely to be on the cards following Jurowski’s pre-performance talk during which a great deal of time given over to defending Martynov’s plundering of musical styles. The work was described by the host of the event as “user-friendly” with “plenty of melodies”. But it was the broad selection of musical influences imitated in nearly all (except for two chords) which Jurwoski explained was a deliberate on the part of the composer.

For Martynov, the second world war marked the end of an era of composing. Traditionally composed music of that which the European tradition had become accustomed to was now at an end. There was nothing more to write. Composers now turned to different compositional techniques as a way of trying to come to terms with what to do next.

Put like that, Martynov’s Vita Nuova was a work which documented the true period of composing, drawing on the works and styles of the past and combining them in a work which set out to make “music about music” combining plainchant, operatic recitative and traditional operatic styles.

Thus Martynov’s setting of Dante’s work La Vita Nuova shaped up to be more of a pragmatic (or possibly shameless) attempt at pulling in audience rather than the potentially powerful statement or call to action Jurowski claimed it might be in his Guardian interview.

One question remained. Was it really an opera ? Jurowski went to great lengths to point out that Martynov’s use of the word (it appeared on the front page of the score titled as an opera) was more a reference to the original meaning of the word – “the work” – than a literal reference conjuring up the kind of opera performances most audiences are accustomed to. .

The finer points of the conductor’s definition were somewhat lost come the performance, however. The use of Dante’s work, with a strong narrative set to music, executed by soloists, chorus and orchestra had all the hallmarks of opera. This combined with subtle stage lighting and a sedately choreographed chorus made the definition undeniably traditional. To all intents and purposes this was opera. Certainly no misunderstanding there.

Even if the resulting mish-mash of musical styles made it sometimes feel like a wander through a musical museum, Martynov may still have achieved something really quite impressive. The Festival Hall saw an impressive box office for tonight’s world premiere. The music was accessible, the story easy to follow and the stage visually engaging despite the cut-down drama of a concert performance.

Even without surtitles or a programme, it wouldn’t have taken much to follow what was going on. There may have been times when a spot of editing might have been in order (especially from the second half of Act 3 onwards) but the vocal work in the soloists, in particular Mark Padmore ensured attention remained squarely on the stage.

Its rich mix of musical styles combined with its simple yet effective staging opportunities make this an opera which has the potential of making anyone setting foot in the concert hall for the first time feel welcome and at ease. And for those of us who haven’t read Dante before, the prospect doesn’t seem anywhere near as daunting as it did before the performance.

Other members of the audience had a slightly different experience. Times Online reviewer Richard Morrison was scathing, Intermezzo seemed less than impressed in the work being “not so new after all” whilst Tweeter @helenium experienced “absolute weirdness, helped along by paedophilia, death and disease”.

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