Alastair White’s “Fashion Opera”

cover - MSV28609

WHITE: Robe / Clare Kanter, mezzo (Rowan the Mapmaker); Rosie Middleton, mezzo (Neachneohain/EDINBURGH); Sarah Parkin, voc (Beira the Soldier/EDINBURGH); Kelly Poukens, sop (Storyteller); Jenni Hogan, fl; Ben Smith, pno / Métier MSV 28609 (live: London, August 6, 2019)

The casual reader may be forgiven if he or she thinks from the album cove pictured here that this album is called “White Robe.” It is not. This is a “fashion opera” called Robe written by Scottish composer Alastair White, whose work is influenced by “technology, science, politics and materialist philosophy,” according to Wikipedia.

The synopsis, quite brief as opera plots go, is stated thus in the booklet:

In a society where the difference between the real and the virtual is no longer meaningful, a powerful new being threatens the stability which holds these worlds together. Two elders, Neachneohain and Beira, convince the young cartographer Rowan to complete a terrible task: descend into the mind of the superintelligence EDINBURGH and map this creature so as to grant its desire – to become a living city, teeming with human life and activity. Witnessing visions of the awful realness of life beyond cyberspace, Rowan agrees – plunging into its depths: a strange, abstract world of data and dream.

Thirty years later, Rowan and EDINBURGH have fallen in love, have lived their lives together. Though every morning she awakes with no memory of the past, Rowan has almost completed the map that EDINBURGH desires. But into this map Rowan has woven something else: something hidden, silent, unsaid. As these rifts in the structure undo causality itself, she must answer the question: what exactly has she created? And what does it have to do with this strange, otherworldly figure who sings the red song of a forgotten city – of an ancient, poisoned ROBE…

Although the opera is in English, there is a full libretto printed in the booklet. This is helpful since the singers have muddled diction and, when you can make out words, they do not pronounce them properly. At the very beginning, for instance, the soprano starts out singing “Last night,” and she can’t even pronounce the word “last” properly, singing it as “Lost night.” So right off the bat you know you’ve got enunciation problems, and they don’t get any better once she leaps up into her high register, where not a single word is clear.

The music starts out quite lyrical and even tonal, albeit unaccompanied, but when the singer shoots into the high range one realizes that she is singing extended chord positions that lie just outside of the tonality. A few ominous piano notes end in a bizarre chord before the singer re-enters; from this point on the music becomes much stranger. Yet the music exerts a strange, hypnotic influence on the listener. Eventually a flute is heard inserting some soft, repeated Cs above the piano and soprano as the music develops slowly. After a while, these Cs become slightly distorted, leaning a microtone flat before returning to absolute pitch.

Because most of the singers are women and their timbres sound surprisingly alike, it’s difficult to tell when one stops singing and another begins, hence another good reason for having the libretto. Although the sparse accompaniment of flute and piano is all you get to support the vocalists, I have to say that I greatly prefer this to electronic noises. Sorry, but electronic “music” holds absolutely no appeal for me; on the contrary, it wreaks havoc on my nervous system and is actually painful for me to listen to.

One problem with Robe, however, is that much of the music, even when it changes in the vocal line and/or accompaniment, sounds very much alike. All of the development is in the piano accompaniment, which becomes quite complex, staccato notes in the bass and loudly sprinkled wide-spaced passages played in the right, sounding much like the avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Because the piano part becomes so complex, I can’t really say that the music is repetitive per se, but it tends to stay in one space for long periods of time and doesn’t have any harmonic variety, being largely confined to one atonal scale.

But we’re talking about a recording which only gives us the audio element. It’s quite possible that Robe is much more effective as an audio-visual theater piece, meant to be seen as well as heard. Of course, all opera fits that description, but in a modern work like this I believe that the visual element is of great importance.

Thus I would not be too hard on Robe without having seen a production of it, even though the music as such does not paint any sort of picture or projects any sort of feelings other than those of the edginess of modern music. In other words, it is interesting but wears thin as a strictly aural experience.

Yet the singers all have fine voices despite their struggles with English diction and our two accompanists, flautist Jenni Hogan and pianist Ben Smith, play with energy and conviction. To make a generalization, I found the score very interesting in places but not altogether convincing as an opera without the visual side of it. Had the singers’ diction been much better, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more. I find it very tiring to keep reading a libretto when listening to a work that’s purportedly in my own native tongue. Even if I were watching a stage performance, I’d have to have supertitles in order to understand what the heck they were singing.

Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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