Michael Nyman has contributed several important scores to films that have made an impact, most of them sharing a slightly off-the-mainstream aesthetic, most of them made by experimental filmmakers. His trajectory has not been a typical one for a composer. In addition to his strong sense for cinematic narrative, he is a competent storyteller in visual and text media. It seems only natural that he should feel right at home in opera, and he has composed seven of them in the last 30 years.
"Facing Goya" is an opera in four acts, which was first composed for the Michael Nyman Band in 2000, but was re-orchestrated a few years later for a larger, more standardized ensemble, in which version it was presented in its Spoleto premiere Sunday night.
The theme of the opera delves into genetic ethics, DNA cloning, art vs. science and Nazi brain experiments, and unfolds in a non-linear, mostly emotionally detached manner, through the interaction of five characters who share the stage changing roles and relationships, in a visually rich and artificial environment.
Sounds like a good mix of ingredients to make an interesting opera. There are plenty of threads to follow here with great potential for experimentation in narrative techniques and levels of emotional and intellectual engagment with the subject matter, which is interesting and provocative.
The libretto does not help much, however. It is mostly shapeless, wordy, unfocused and without any formal focus or musicality. The only moments of relief from the constantly didactic rhetoric (delivered in a lecturing manner with no emotional commitment) was the occasional one-liner jokes, to which the audience would react with a chuckle or two. Nevertheless, the composer managed to shape interesting vocal lines out of it, which were lithe and rhythmically interesting, engaging the singers' entire range with dexterity, and handling the text in interesting ways. As a result, the vocal parts were quite adventurous in pitch material, incorporating angular gestures and wide intervals.
The orchestral material however did not rise up to the level of craftsmanship of the voices. Here we get the familiar Nyman gestures: repeated triads, almost always pulsating, occasionally turning into dance rhythms, with jazzy episodes and superimposed poppy melodic fragments. The texture sounded like a direct transcription of a pop-synth accompaniment, thick and heavy in the middle register, with no resonance or buoyancy. As a result, the singers had repeated problems in balance and intonation, despite their remarkable efforts.
Unfortunately, this went on for the first three acts. And without any other real hooks to guide the listener, the pacing fell flat quite early. It was quite a relief that the final act was different. All of a sudden, there was shape in the drama, emotional involvement in the characters, registral expansion in the orchestral parts, more inventive orchestration, interesting gestures and a quite beautiful ensemble finish.
The singers handled the material wonderfully, and added a lot of shape and direction to a score that needed it quite often. Anne-Carolyn Bird was especially stunning in the final act, and Thomas Michael Allen handled beautifully a quite difficult part with power and sensitivity.
It's always a delight to see Spoleto expand its range in different aesthetic avenues, and it's one of the very few festivals in the country that will consistently invest in new works. This one may have not worked out great, but we are definitely watching. Opera is alive, and this is definitely the place for it to grow.
Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is a professor of composition at the College of Charleston.