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Three characters in search of a decent venue
Artplay na Yauze 
By Neil McGowan
The man who mistook his wife for a hat -
Michael Nyman's Opera Review
ArtPlay Gallery, May 23

Congratulations to Malenky Mirovoy Teatr, who gave Michael Nyman’s chamber opera The man who mistook his wife for a hat its first professional performance in Russia. (MMT also sponsored a public play-through of the work in February in Moscow). The composer himself attended both of the performances this week, given as part of the Chekhov Theatre Festival in Moscow.
The theme of the opera is the first of the cases of abnormal psychiatric phenomena related in Dr Oliver Sachs’ mid-80’s book “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”. It relates the story of a distinguished musician, “Professor P”, who encounters increasing difficulties in associating the physical shape of objects which he sees with the concepts those objects (his wife, his hat) ought to have for him. He sees them perfectly – but he does not know what they are. At the instigation of his wife “Mrs P”, he attends the clinic of “Dr S” – whom we know as Dr Sachs. As the investigations continue, Sachs finds to his initial incredulity that P is somehow using musical associations in his head as an aide-memoire to recognising the objects which surround him in his daily life. Unable to solve the case, Dr S at least consoles himself that the patient has contrived his own very unique way of navigating his world. The ending is left open with the same words that end Sachs’ real-life account of the case - “But I began to worry – what would happen for him when the music ended?”

British conductor Damian Iorio – more regularly to be found conducting the Murmansk Philharmonic – masterminded the musical aspects of the production, carefully and authentically reproducing a score first heard in 1985. Like much of Nyman’s music, “The man” employs a rigorous “minimalist” technique throughout – the same minimalism which brought Nyman back into composing that he’d originally abandoned in the 1970’s. The instrumental ensemble – a string quartet with an additional cello, harp and piano – repeat slowly metamorphosing ostinato patterns of different shapes and textures, whist the vocal soloists sing longer sustained lines which float over this amorphous and mercurial texture. As a background to a story of intractable psychological disorder, this makes a very effective combination – the apparent certainties in the mind of Professor P overlaying the shifting sands of constantly changing patterns.

The ArtPlay Gallery is a worthy and exciting venue for presenting new experiments in art and furniture design – but unfortunately it is a deeply unfortunate location for presenting live music. The acoustic is like a public swimming bath, and the sightlines are abysmal for anyone sitting further back than Row 3’s $120 seats. The instrumental ensemble were moved – logically, as there was no better place to locate them – under an overhanging gallery, which unfortunately made them sound as though they were in another room, and the sound was coming through the wall. It would have been worthwhile miking both the singers and instrumentalists, and putting the whole thing through a professional mixing-desk. The free champagne and hors-d’oeuvres afterwards – and party music??? – more than hinted that the promoter’s priorities here were aimed more at a musical fashion-show, and less at an opera production. So fatal was the choice of venue that it served to entirely undermine the entire creative effort – apparently considerable – lavished on the work. This isn’t overstatement – if you can’t see it and you can barely hear it, how the hell can you review it? The production – what could be seen of it, at least – was an inventive piece of work from Natalya Anastasieva, and designed by Anna Koleichuk. The neurological tests were illustrated with computer-generated back-projections, including abstract shapes and designs, and a morphing image of the Mona Lisa which changed shape in ghastly proportions illustrating the severity of Professor P’s visual problems.

A bright team of singers, all from Helikon Opera, performed the three vocal roles. Mikhail Davydov made a sympathetic patient – not wanting a fuss made of him, and trying to downplay the acute nature of his condition. Julia Korpacheva sang lyrical lines of concern and anxiety, delicately exploring the extreme upper soprano register effortlessly, whilst pride of place went to Dmitry Kuzmin’s splendidly-sung Dr S, acted with conviction and splendid diction. The fragments of “Ich grolle nicht” which P sings prompted the producer to include on-stage appearances of both Robert Schumann (Piotr Apollonov) and Clara Schumann (Ekaterine Pospelova) – well, probably the people in Rows 1-3 may have seen them, anyhow?

“Deficit. Deficit of vision.” the piece begins. As someone who paid $60 of his own money and couldn’t see anything more than three bobbing heads, I certainly sympathised with the problem of deficit of vision. And there were people sitting up to ten rows behind me. Idiotic TV screens in the audience area flashing rotating adverts for the sponsors throughout the performance merely heightened the deficit. When the sponsor’s name obscures and obliterates the art itself, you know you have a serious problem.

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