Kopernikus: Opéra – rituel de mort
Peter Sellars/Roomful of Teeth/Ensemble L’Instant Donné
Monday 2 March
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke
High-end, high-concept, completely bonkers brilliance: that’s what arts festivals are for, in my opinion. You don’t want to see run-of-the-mill stuff. You want to see genuinely extraordinary things that are too strange and too complex to ever find a home elsewhere.
Kopernikus, the 1979 opera by little-known experimental composer Claude Vivier, absolutely fits the bill. As its subtitle suggests, it is a ritual of death, an exploration of what might happen as we pass out of this life. The opera takes place on a small, two-level stage, with 14 performers: seven singers in the group Roomful of Teeth, and seven instrumentalists, mostly woodwinds, in the Ensemble L’Instant Donné. All are dressed in white and seated on simple chairs, except one, who lies still on an altar-like table.
That, however, is the only simple or straightforward thing about the opera. Vivier, a Canadian who died young in 1983, was an outsider, a deliberate misfit, something of a mystic. In the opera, he plumbs a range of emotional, mythical and musical sources, drawing on their evocative power and using them as possible guides to self-transformation beyond death.
As a result, the lyrics – both those that are sung live and those that have been pre-recorded – draw on the most extraordinary range of sources. A Lewis Carroll quote kicks things off; ‘Herr Mozart’ is asked for guidance on the sound made by angels; Tristan, Isolde and the Queen of the Night are appealed to; a rollcall of famous astronomers and philosophers appears near the end.
Throughout all this, the most extraordinary music is played and sung. Vivier’s music is very hard to describe, but somehow manages to be rich and gorgeous, fluid even, while remaining unsettlingly atonal. The sung passages are full of dramatic slides up and down, and much of the music – especially the orchestration – is characterised by strange, high overtones and tintinnabulation, a sense that notes are beating in and out of pitch with each other or silver bells are ringing.
As the figure lying flat on the table, Agni, goes through their journey out of life and into the next world, a bizarre but brilliant world is conjured up by both singers and musicians. The libretto in particular makes enormous demands on the singers, not least because much of it is in a language that Vivier himself invented. Yet the singers retained a remarkable purity of tone. The baryton-Martin Dashon Burton deserves special praise: his rich but light voice, so effective in the repeated, sliding incantations of ‘Agni’, stayed long in the memory. The Ensemble’s playing, meanwhile, was delightful.
It must be said that Kopernikus will never be to everyone’s taste; indeed several people walked out of the performance I attended. The more mystical of the lyrics hover dangerously close to the absurd, and any viewer’s enthusiasm for the piece will depend partly on their tolerance for lines like, ‘The shadow of philosophical flowers floats in far corners of lost worlds.’
For myself, though, I found it entrancing. The purity and simplicity of the setting was the perfect counterpoint to the highly exaggerated nature of the material, and the atmosphere thus conjured up was both dreamlike and immensely powerful. It was, to repeat a perhaps overused adjective, utterly, utterly extraordinary, like nothing I have ever seen before. It was a totally personal vision, the kind of world that can be summoned up, whole and entire, only by a completely idiosyncratic composer. And even for those of us who have no belief whatsoever in the afterlife, it had a unique and fragile beauty.
It is the kind of thing I would like to come back to time and again, to see how it changes, or how my view of it – or the transformation it suggests – has changed. I suspect in fact I will never see it again, the financial realities of performance being what they are; but I give my heartfelt thanks to the festival that I was able to experience it at least this once.