Glowing with ideas: Simone Spagnolo’s Even you, lights, cannot hear me

On a dark, empty landscape, strewn with white rocks, a two headed creature (baritone James Schouten and mezzo Kate Symonds-Joy, back to back on a rotating rock) sits at a piano. Bemoaning its loneliness and fear, this creature, the World Spirit, sings of its struggles with the Devil and its memories of all life on earth. Based on a monologue from Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, translated by Dmitry Devdariani, Simone Spagnolo’s Even you, lights, cannot hear me transports us to a mysterious, other world far in the future, in the time after “all, all lives accomplished the pensive circle of their existence and vanished.” All the creature can do is remember what life was like, imbued with the memory of the whole of existence, and hope for the time when life will come again; but, in the meantime, the Devil, and his terror, needs to be battled.

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Kate Symonds-Joy. Photography by Mirko de Nicoló

Spagnolo’s highly experimental piece exerts a mesmeric hold over its audience from the start. Visually arresting, the monochrome, near-lunar landscape is carefully lit so that the scattered rocks seem to glow with their very whiteness. As we enter the theatre to take our seats, the creature is already sitting at the piano in the centre of the stage, and Schouten and Symonds-Joy make an arresting spectacle, both clad in silver bodysuits surmounted by simple white tunics, their faces painted white, Symonds-Joy moving with balletic, achingly slow grace as she pours gravel and sand between two metal chalices. As the opera begins, Schouten plays and sings, with his back to us, while Symonds-Joy, with absolute precision, lipsyncs his words so that his baritone seems to be flowing from her own lips as she continues to pour the gravel, its whispering fall providing a delicate percussion to the chromatic, tonal piano accompaniment. As the words become more impassioned, Symonds-Joy slowly reaches her hands back to exchange her chalices for handfuls of large white pebbles, which she proceeds to toss carefully onto the floor at the end of phrases, each sharp crack as they hit the smooth stage floor at first frightening, then exhilarating as we become accustomed to it. Infinitesimally rotating their rock until we can see both singers in profile, they start to sing in unison (each accompanying themselves, without looking, with one hand on the piano), eventually embarking on a stunning duet before finishing their rotation so that now it is Schouten’s turn to lipsync Symonds-Joy’s voice while she plays. Eventually, they rise from the piano and break apart, backing away to disappear into black curtains at each side of the stage.  There is applause, but no bow. The Devil has arrived; and the creature has departed into utter nothingness, hopefully to resurge another day.

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Kate Symonds-Joy, James Schouten. Photography by Mirko de Nicoló

Spagnolo’s music both stimulates and satisfies the ear, at once modern, eerie and undeniably beautiful. The whole piece seems not so much opera per se as a mixture of opera and performance art, a spectacle of control, a tenaciously curated vision of an apocalyptic mood: when pushing the boundaries of any art form this far, you end up in an exciting, genre-bending new zone. The absolute focus and commitment from both singers allow this strange world to feel invitingly real for us: their voices are beautifully toned and well matched, while projection and diction are faultless, although the power of this piece really comes from the sheer quality of its execution as we watch it, rather than the content of its libretto, which I found myself reading over with interest later. This production must have taken courageous vision on all sides, from both composer (who also produces) and the performers: but it pays off in spades.

Part of the Opera in the City Festival

Rating: 5 stars

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James Schouten. Photography by Mirko de Nicoló

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