REVIEW: Sebastiano Dessanay’s The Cry of the Double Bass (Tête à Tête Opera Festival 2017 at RADA)

Themba Mvula in The Cry of the Double Bass
Photo credit: Claire Shovelton


Sebastiano Dessanay’s The Cry of the Double Bass
(Act 3 given as part of the Tête à Tête Opera Festival at RADA Studio Theatre.
10 August 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)

“As if a hollow body of wood and strings had a soul that speaks,” is how the libretto to Sebastiano Dessanay’s opera The Cry of the Double Bass describes that charismatic instrument. Wrapped in a thin white gauze, the static bass haunts the back of the stage in the RADA Studio Theatre during the debut performance of the final act as part of the experimental opera festival Tête à Tête.

It’s a resonant story about overcoming, the story of a little boy who wants to become a musician, and the challenges he faces growing up. He “went to university to study geology, got engaged to the girl next door, and music became a dead dream painful to recall. He imagined his grandfather telling him to chase his dreams however fatuous they might seem. He knew he must change. He must study the double bass.”

Plagued by tendonitis and black dogs, the protagonist gets a rough time off his parents, who at one point sell the grandfather's bass. The composer himself may have had a slightly more sympathetic background. His grandfather was the first director of the opera theatre in Cagliari, and his mother used to take him to hear Verdi and Mozart. On bass he is an exciting improviser who studied composition at Birmingham Conservatoire. It’s always interesting to see what jazz people do when they’re not doing jazz, and it’s obvious that Dessanay is steeped in both operatic form and the vocabulary of modernistic classical music.

It’s opera after the unsettling rigorous modernism of Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur, but of a more accessible atonality with shimmering textures recalling the space and atmosphere of Berg and Webern. Scored for piano and an ensemble of strings and brass but opening with a fully atonal quartet of double basses, there is some wonderful instrumental writing with a subtle lyricism. Denser moments include a Weimar-style waltz distorted chromatically, and a final climactic chorus.

Recitative is used throughout, and the regular singing also has some of the naturalness of Sprechgesang. Mike Carter’s libretto has some memorable mots justes: “A double bass is not as some people say the body of a Rubensesque woman, it’s a leviathan, a covinous toothless mouth yawning to swallow the man who would tame it.”

With some additional catch-up of the prior events, it works effectively as a one-act opera. It is at its best foregrounding the interactions of the players and the opera singers rather than during the lengthy voiceovers that comment, narrate and fill in the back story from the previous acts that we haven’t seen. There’s a great deal of it and it lays it on pretty thick: “The hours poured into funding applications... a system designed to destroy souls...” It gets more relatable, but doesn’t pull any punches about the travails of life as a budding musician.

Sandro Fontoni (foreground) and Themba Mvula
in The Cry of the Double Bass
Photo credit: Claire Shovelton

The act’s climactic performance was given by double bass soloist Sandro Fontoni, bowing in the highest end of the fingerboard. I’d have loved to have seen this moment improvised rather than scored, ideally under the fingers of Sebastiano Dessanay himself. It would be good to see the whole thing in three acts. Hopefully there’s some way of financing it, perhaps another crowdfunder. As the libretto has it, “I remember the future./ And I foresee the past./ I’ve no idea what will become of me.”

The Cry of the Double Bass has a resonant appeal, with goodies and baddies and comedy and drama. Daniele Rosina conducted the ensemble impressively and Riccardo Buscarini's direction made it flow naturally. The piece aims to connect to everyone, not just musicians and artists, and ultimately, Dessanay hopes, “to send a message: do what you do at your best, believe in who you are, make your own decisions and follow your heart.”

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

LINKS: A complete set of photos of the production - and the full cast list - are on Flickr
Sebastiano Dessanay's website

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