Review: ‘Between Worlds,’ with English National Opera, Addresses 9/11

Michael White New York Times

LONDON — Are there no-go areas for opera — stories too momentous or traumatic to be told in song? Perhaps not. But there are some narratives that stage composers tend to stay away from, including the September 11 terrorist attacks. An exception occurred last weekend when Tansy Davies’s “Between Worlds” had its premiere at the Barbican in a production overseen by the English National Opera here.

Tansy Davies composed and Deborah Warner directed this opera at the Barbican in London about the September 11 terrorist attacks. Credit Hugo Glendinnin

Tansy Davies composed and Deborah Warner directed this opera at the Barbican in London about the September 11 terrorist attacks. Credit Hugo Glendinnin

Directed by Deborah Warner, conducted by the new-music specialist Gerry Cornelius and with a libretto by the poet Nick Drake, this lyric-theater response to the attacks was an all-British project, which gave it more space to breathe than it might have had in the United States. But it was still a high-risk undertaking, especially as a first venture into opera by a composer who is relatively young and little known, at least off the circuit of contemporary music.

Born in 1973, with an eclectic musical pedigree that ranges from playing in a rock band to teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, Ms. Davies has established her credentials through dynamic, assertive and impressive scores on a symphonic level, and was ready for a serious stage commission of this kind. But there must have been sharp intakes of breath when her 9/11 proposition reached the table.

That the subject has been visited in films and concert works (and referred to in Christopher Theofanidis’s celebratory “Heart of a Soldier,” which played at the San Francisco Opera four years ago) is neither here nor there. Sung theater is a medium with its own laws that can be enriching or debasing. This was dynamite material, marked “proceed with care.” That Ms. Davies does so is, paradoxically, both the salvation and the damnation of the piece.

One imagines that at an early stage in planning she faced the question of whether “Between Worlds” would dramatize the events of September 11 (and risk reducing them to the triteness of operatic banter) or memorialize them (without creating maudlin kitsch). It tries to do both, and fortunately her librettist has been skillful enough to avoid the worst consequences. But it’s a close call, because there are times when the piece plays like a muted version of “The Towering Inferno,” and others when poetic fantasy gets out of hand — a fantasy indebted to how John Adams handles the 1985 hijacking of the ship Achille Lauro in his opera “The Death of Klinghoffer.”)

As a drama, “Between Worlds” has no surprises, which itself is one of the chief problems in selecting September 11 as a narrative. We know exactly what will happen, even if the characters (unnamed office workers and their families) don’t. From the first strike, all we do is wait with them for the inevitable — a prolonged and agonizing wait that makes the piece a tension rather than an action drama. Although the plane strikes register, they don’t with much impact musically: They’re not a compositional priority. The waiting is what matters, with the characters in limbo (as the opera’s title has it) between the worlds of life and death. This is where the fantasy takes over, in the form of a mysterious figure in a business suit who seems to rule what happens and facilitates the life-to-death transition.

The libretto identifies him as the Shaman, although nothing in the sung text or the staging made that clear, and his engagement with the office workers wasn’t meaningful. It is a fault in a production that was otherwise transparent.

The design — a stark, skeletal, semiabstract set by Michael Levine — divided the Barbican stage horizontally into three, with ground space at the bottom, office space suspended (as it were) in midair and the Shaman at the top. It wasn’t difficult to feel the office workers’ helplessness in their entrapment, or the terror as they edged along the front of their suspended platform, contemplating the last, desperate measure of a leap into the void.

It also wasn’t hard to hear their words: a rare experience on the English National Opera’s cavernous home territory, the London Coliseum, but far easier at the smaller Barbican, in a space principally designed for speech. It helped that the scoring was, for a modest orchestra of 35, deployed sparingly to keep the textures open.

If anything, it was Ms. Davies’s ear for orchestral sound, alongside the technical bravura of her choral writing, that commended the score — and compensated for a disappointingly dull lyricism in the solo voices. None of them especially stood out, although Andrew Watts as the lofty Shaman and Eric Greene as the kind of levelheaded janitor you would want in a crisis, had their moments. So did Susan Bickley, who sang the bereaved mother with radiant dignity.

The caution of the piece, though, was its ultimate undoing. The distinctive, urban energy that has been a feature of Ms. Davies’s work seemed stifled here by the requirements of good taste. And the decision to produce a midscale piece, without the impact of grand opera or the intimacy of a chamber score, left it as awkwardly between worlds as its own characters.

That Tansy Davies is an interesting composer cannot be doubted, but a September 11 opera wasn’t the right thing to demonstrate her gifts. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been right for anyone.

“Between Worlds” runs through April 25 at the Barbican in London.

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