The performance took place at Wilton’s Music Hall, its interior an absolute vision, dating back to the 1850s, with a genuine combination of plush grandeur and crumbling decadence.
Gribbin’s own Eight Colours string quartet (based on the poems of Liu Han) opened up the evening with real promise, the instruments being scraped, plucked and struck (harmonies drawn mainly from the Shostakovich book of dissonance), played with a brilliant sense of rhythmical fluency. Hushed, understated ideas sparked into life and the Smith Quartet ticked and tocked more and more dramatically as the work drove on.
Towards the end of the quartet, Alison Wells ghosted up behind the string players in a sort of red Kimono with big drooping sleeves (the piece could have been set anywhere and in any time, but because the commission was for the CHINA NOW festival, of course there had to be a kimono).
The quartet finished, moved to the side of the stage and Wells began to sing along with the undulating quartet. The first problem: I couldn’t make out a single word of what she was saying. That can be overcome when you have several characters interacting, the gestures and actions hinting at the words and making them easy to follow. Here there was just a woman holding a letter with two dancers dressed in black dancing about, distracting from the main character.
The story (mainly gleaned from the synopsis in the programme) was about a woman whose lover has gone away to war and she is deeply upset. There was no strongly defining aspect of her personality, and because she was morose from the start of the opera it was hard to sympathise.
The music from the string quartet coupled with sound from the projected film was often dramatic, intricate and interesting, but the vocal line was too usually inelegant, or characterless.
The idea of a multi-art-form opera is a good one, but the main elements of character or driving focus are ones you can’t sacrifice. Without a strong story Deirdre Gribbin was putting her music on a coat hanger made of cobwebs.