Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

There were two extraordinary Gesamtkunstwerks at this year’s Venice Biennale that thoroughly, depressingly, outshone Glyndebourne’s new production of Damnation of Faust

It was bucketing it down in Venice, yet the beach was heaving. Families, lovebirds, warring kids, a yappy mutt, all strewn across a sandy expanse, basking on beach towels. Balls were bounced, crosswords filled, timelines scrolled. Out of this idleness, songs would bubble up, light billowy airs — speaking now to suncream mundanities, now to geological anxieties — whisked up to our ears as if on a cooling breeze.

We were in the Lithuanian Pavilion inside a dilapidated former military storehouse in a corner of north Venice, being given a god’s-eye view on an extraordinary new opera, Sun & Sea (Marina), by a Lithuanian trio: composer Lina Lapelyte, director Rugile Barzdziukaite, and writer Vaiva Grainyte. Word had spread that the Pavilion was the favourite for the Biennale’s top gong, the Golden Lion, and the queue was now an hour long. Those of us already inside, however — peering over the bannisters on to this desert island on the floor below — were not shifting.

The libretto at times echoed the throwaway small talk of John Adams’s operas. The music bobbed around in the unnerving, almost chemically-clear waters of Philip Glass — though sometimes, harmonically, it drifted further this way into twangy West End territory, or further that way into more interesting scummier synthy drones. Dictating everything was the law of flotsam and jetsam, the work chucking up a variety of disposable musical forms, deliberately unsophisticated, pretty, plasticky, mesmerising. A ‘Sunscreen Bosanova’, for example, delivered in beautifully hushed tones by a large woman to her prostrate husband: ‘Hand it here, I need to rub my legs…’, her fellow bathers adding the soothing gust of a sleepy humming chorus.

Puncturing every one of these aerated lullabies was the undertow of something darker. Exhaustion, extinction, anxiety dreams, a ‘Chanson of Too Much Sun’; a woman sings of her drowned ex.

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