Opera + Classical Music Reviews

An Anatomy of Melancholy: An hour of mixed media contemplation on melancholy and depression

27 October 2022

Thursday night melancholy at the Barbican.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Max Colson)

We live in melancholic times – as crisis after crisis imbues us with a kind of mournful resignation – so an hour on a dank Thursday evening spent meditating on the emotion seemed entirely apposite.

An Anatomy of Melancholy, a mixed media event created by director Netia Jones is currently playing at Barbican’s The Pit theatre until Sunday 30 October. The set is a laboratory/conservatory with hanging screens, onto which moving images in a green-tinted monochrome are projected; the live protagonists are the countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford, who perform a selection of songs around lost love by the melancholic composer John Dowland (c. 1563–1626). Dunford remains seated, cradling his theorbo, throughout, whereas, whether singing or silent, Davies plays both herbalist/scientist and jilted lover, studying, pacing, experimenting and mourning. Complementing the specific sadness of the broken relationships lamented in the texts of the songs is a series of voice-overs reciting passages around more generalised melancholy and depression from works of different eras by Robert Burton, Sigmund Freud and Darian Leader.

Davies and Dunford are no strangers to Dowland’s lute songs (they’ve recorded a couple of albums of them together); as expected, then, the singing and playing was immaculate – and Davies, drawing on his acting roles in early music opera, even managed to deliver an exemplary performance of In darkness let me dwell from a prone position on the floor in complete blackout. There aren’t many upbeat songs in Dowland’s oeuvre but these two masters of their craft pulled out all the little subtleties in the material to add interest, and to make the songs relevant to contemporary listeners (as Davies put it in a recent interview: “I don’t try to think of myself as an Early Musician… I want it to feel like a song I could sing to a member of Jo[e] public who hasn’t heard a lute song before.”). So, the changes in words for the short, repeated refrain of Can she excuse my wrongs? were given different emphasis each time; the account of Time stands still was introspective and measured, such that we were all given time to contemplate the image of the poet’s lover, and to “…gaze for minutes, houres and yeares, to her give place”; the more strident ‘moving on’ song, Far from triumphing court was given some classic Davies clarion treatment; and the alternating declamatory and sorrowful passages in Sorrow, sorrow, stay were nicely contrasted, and included one of those astonishingly clear, held notes that are part of the joy of listening to the countertenor voice. Dunford is, arguably, the finest lutenist of our age, and this showed in the smattering of instrumental items, in which the placing of notes and chords throughout to allow little tensions and releases – what, in later music, we might call rubato – was perfection.

“…an hour on a dank Thursday evening spent meditating on the emotion seemed entirely apposite”

Perhaps the only problems here were caused by the production itself. The Pit (particularly with an audience lining its walls) is quite an acoustically absorbent space, and the necessity of singing ‘in the round’, meant that, particularly when Davies’ back was turned, text became muffled.

The spoken and visual material worked generally well, and certainly added another dimension to the singing. The music, though (with its very specific themes of grief and loss, and its complete, stand-alone texts), dominated the evening, and one was left wanting something with a little more considered exposition from the other elements beyond catchy soundbite philosophies such as “our identity is built up of broken relationships”; “in mourning we grieve the dead; in melancholia we die with them”; “they that increaseth wisdom increaseth sorrow”. The brief explorations of melancholy as anxiety, or depression as a form of saying ‘no’ to what we are told to be, were tantalising but left unresolved, and somehow, the connection between melancholy and sadness induced by a particular event and more ongoing ‘clinical’ depression was never quite fully made.

An Anatomy of Melancholy runs at the Barbican’s Pit Theatre from 27–30 October, with performances at 21:00 each day, and a 16:00 performance on each day except 28 October. The performance at 9.00pm on Fri 28 Oct will be livestreamed, with tickets available to buy both in advance and for 48 hours after the live screening.

• More information is available on the Barbican website.

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