On the Edge of Hysteria

A convention-shattering modern Gerald Barry opera based on Strindberg’s play
The Stronger will have its Australian premiere in Adelaide thanks to the coming together of Soundstream and London-based Australian soprano Alison Bell.

Two women, Mme X and Mme Y, meet by chance in a café. Acquaintances from years back, they jealously probe and taunt each other as it gradually transpires that they might share the same man in their lives. All seems headed for a raging showdown except that no confrontation ever happens: one of them, Mme Y, remains silent throughout. Who is the stronger is really left up to one’s interpretation.

Strindberg’s play The Stronger (Den starkare in the Swedish) is an acutely modernist work for the time it was written, 1889. Its imprisoning, hallucinatory qualities remind one of Kafka, and its strident exploration into the theatrical possibilities of monodrama strikingly prefigures Beckett. It glowers with psychological menace. “Your soul crept into mine, like a worm into an apple, ate and ate, bored and bored, until nothing was left,” says Mme X accusingly of her mute companion — this after pointing a toy gun at the latter’s head and asking if she should pull the trigger.

And what a great subject it makes for a convention-shattering modern opera. As it was, history had to wait three-and-a-half decades until Schoenberg’s Erwartung to see an opera created with just one singing part — in that grimly nightmarish work, a woman disintegrates mentally as she stumbles over the corpse of her lover.

Omissions were righted as recently as 2007 when Irish composer Gerald Barry turned Strindberg’s play into an opera named La Plus Forte. It wasn’t the first time this had been done — Hugo Weisgall, a minor American composer, attempted likewise in 1952. But Barry’s is a firecracker of a work and has been gaining serious attention in the UK. Full of pungent expression, Thomas Adès conducted its premiere in a concert performance with Barbara Hannigan and the London Symphony Orchestra in 2010. This was followed by the work’s first staged performance in 2013 at the London Contemporary Music Festival, this time with the Australian soprano Allison Bell.

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Adelaide adds to the list of firsts when Bell comes here to give the world premiere of La Plus Forte’s version for piano with Soundstream. The performance, in Elder Hall, dispenses entirely with the mute character of Mme Y and will only allude to her physical presence.

The Tasmanian-born, London-based Bell, has, since 2001, been gathering a reputation as one of Europe’s most talented young sopranos in the field of contemporary art-music. She describes La Plus Forte as a “kind of extended dramatic monologue” that rides emotional extremes.

“There is no action at all,” Bell says. “What one sees is Mme X’s emotional trajectory. She is basically having a one-sided conversation, and doesn’t let Mme Y get a word in edgewise. The way Mme Y stays silent provokes her. She’s a very controlling person, a jealous, emotional and highly strung actress.

“How the listener interprets the truth of what she says is true depends on their life experiences and how jaded they are. It’s bizarre and at times extremely funny. The opera is a snapshot of life that everybody can relate to.”

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Bell says the composer has known for a long time that she wants to perform La Plus Forte again.

“Gerald and I talked about the possibility of having a piano reduction, and he said ‘Okay, as long as the piano is not a wimp!’. The reason is that the opera is brutal at times; it has sharp, jarring chords. It is a perfect expression of what Strindberg is trying to say.

“I think audiences will appreciate his sound world. There is great delicacy as well. His music is full of dramatic intensity. Barry is a funny, warm guy, and opera is the medium for him. I hope this encourages people to listen to more of his music.”

Meeting Gabriella Smart, Soundstream’s director, at MONA’s Synaesthesia Festivals in Tasmania, proved to be the way forward.

Smart says the concert, entitled Either Or, has been a year in the making and was in part conceived to show audiences here Bell’s extraordinary artistry. For good reason, too: an amazingly agile voice, she can push technical and emotional extremes further than most other sopranos one could care to mention. “Barry’s one-act opera, which takes Strindberg’s play to the edge of hysteria”, she says, is “a perfect conduit for Allison’s vocal artistry.”

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Soundstream’s Either Or concert illustrates two sides of language, Smart elaborates, one narrative and the other abstract. Representing the latter will be three works by Australian composers. One of these is Cat Hope’s Stella Degradation, which she says “distills contemporary language through assimilating everyday technology with cutting edge, improvised sonic geometry, with the performers reading graphic notation from iPads”.

Other works by Leah Blankendaal and Erkki Veltheim, respectively, explore the notion of motherhood through literature and phonemic experimentations with sound as a precursor to language, round out the program. Both will be first performances.

Soundstream, Either Or
Elder Hall
Wednesday, August 9
soundstream.org.au

(Photography: Felipe Pagani)

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