Michael Tanner

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Tête à Tête

Riverside Studios

Going to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith for the annual season of Tête à Tête is a chancy affair, though one can be sure of a very high standard of performance, both vocally and instrumentally. It helps, of course, that none of the studios is large, so the singers can produce their voices at conversational level, though many of them choose not to. As always, there is a big range of operas to choose from, so the choice of the pair I shall be discussing was based on no principle other than that the subject of one of them intrigued me, and while I was about it I saw another. In fact, I saw two more, but they were very brief, about ten minutes each, and performed in the Riverside Studios foyer, as a warm-up for the audience. I found them both inscrutable, though they seemed to give pleasure to people who were quicker on the uptake than I am.

The first substantial piece I saw, lasting 75 minutes, was The Shadow of the Wave, by Tom Floyd, who has composed several works for the stage; he may also have been the conductor, who isn’t mentioned in the programme. This opera is a well-made piece, with many features in common with the well-made plays that used to be common in the West End, perhaps still are. There are two couples — sophisticated, articulate, heavy drinkers: one couple is an artist and tortured,  and his wife; the other her neurotic sister and her businessman husband. As they get into various kinds of upset, they are accompanied by a 14-piece orchestra. There is also a mysterious figure, unmentioned in the cast list and unlisted among the performers, an oriental counter-tenor who watches the proceedings and periodically sings eerily about them; in some ways he is the most striking feature of the work, and I’d have been glad of some mention or explanation.

The music of Shadow is attractive, mellifluous, continuous. As usual, I couldn’t resist thinking which better-known composers it was like, and the nearest I came was Tippett, but that may be because of the subject-matter. Though the orchestra played alongside the action, it never drowned it, and the singers, mostly articulating with a clarity I’ve always hoped for, gave maximum value to David Spittle’s fluent drama. The role of Scarlett, the seductive and unbalanced sister-in-law, was impressively well performed in all respects by Dorothea Herbert; she alone had a lengthy and demanding solo, and made me want to see her in something I know, though I’d have been happy to see Shadow again if it hadn’t, as Tête à Tête operas do, had to give way to the next show.

The piece that had taken my fancy was The Francis Bacon Opera, with music and direction by Stephen Crowe. The words are all provided for him by what was said in the edition of The Southbank Show when Melvyn Bragg interviewed Francis Bacon. The question the opera raises, and which may be raised by The Shadow of the Wave, too, as it is by many things I’ve seen thanks to Tête à Tête, is how much the music adds. In this case the accompaniment was provided by a piano, energetically played by Elspeth Wilkes. Some of the dialogue was spoken, some sung; it wasn’t possible to work out the rationale for the sung bits. The text itself is a treat.

When I got home, I watched the whole original on YouTube, and was considerably more enchanted. The opera slightly satirises the two participants, making Bragg more of a comic media person, while Bacon is more traditionally camp than he is in the TV show. Indeed, there he is sympathetically warm, often intelligent in his replies, genial and candid, looking rather like Evelyn Waugh did in the great Face to Face interview with John Freeman, and demonstrating a similar capacity for producing unsettling answers accompanied by a cherubic semi-smile. The TV programme lasts an hour, the opera 45 minutes. Some of the best lines in the programme are cut, but at least as important is that the parade of paintings by Bacon and others is almost wholly eliminated.

Admirable as Christopher Killerby, Bacon, and Oliver Brignall, Bragg, are at moving in and out of song, and at mimicking some of the characters’ mannerisms and gestures, the documentary is more funny and more moving; and certainly lacks the scene in which, getting ever drunker, the two of them perform a ballroom dance, something it is hard to imagine either of them doing with one another. Presumably composers always do ask the question: what can I add? I’d have thought in this case the answer would have been very clear: nothing.