Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel meet head-on in south London.
The BBC Proms travelled south of the river to Canada Water in the festival’s first visit to Printworks, an iconic gig and club venue. It could also be their last visit to the cavernous post-industrial space, as it was recently announced that this vital south London venue was going to be turned into offices – another huge blow to London’s dying nightlife, though there was recently hope of a reprieve.
The space was given over to Glass Handel, a 2018 multimedia and design spectacle devised and performed by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (along with Cath Brittan and Visionaire), made possible this side of the Atlantic by English National Opera, representing their contribution to the summer festival. It is a complex multimodal installation piece that uses live dance, electronic soundscapes, video projection – live and recorded – as well as the orchestra of ENO conducted by Karen Kamensek. James Bonas directed, with choreography by Justin Peck.
Roth Costanzo is probably best known to London audiences for his performances in Glass’ Akhnaten at the London Coliseum, painted head to toe in gold, and is champion of the minimalist composer’s music; Kamensek returns in the spring to conduct ENO’s revival of Phelim McDermott’s production.
Glass Handel interleaves all of the above elements between arias from various Handel operas – Tolomeo, Rinaldo, Rodelinda, and Amadigi – and various Phillip Glass songs or excerpts from his numerous music theatre pieces, including a brand new setting of lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline commissioned by the Proms. They make a canny pairing, from formal and stylistic points of view: both composers who work through a capacity for repetition, and possibilities for ingenious variation within relative stylistic homogeneity. Both are generic in the best possible way. As the music unfolds, videos unfold alongside each aria; dancers dance on platforms across the darkened Press Halls, and Roth Costanzo travels about the space like an eerie prophet.
In one respect Glass is a victim of his own success; the very ubiquity of his musical style in popular media means that certain shots – capering spaniels on a beach; a solo dancer in an abandoned industrial space – make the beautifully executed live performances feel like the soundtrack to a life insurance advert.
“It is a complex multimodal installation piece…”
The filmed sequences lift both Glass and Handel out of their narrative contexts in a way that is refreshing – and perfectly apt for a composer like Handel who happily recycled his own material – in principle, but felt oddly bloodless in context. A knight wanders around in the woods in the opening accompaniment to ‘Inumano fratel… Stille amare’, before the archaic is jettisoned for more modern trappings: in one a young woman fights a cyborg, like something out of a recent Marvel slugfest; another suggests video game graphics. Shedding narrative obligations is fine only if the emotional edges of the pieces are sharpened. The greatest success was a brilliantly surreal accompanying film to ‘Vivi, tiranno’ from Rodelinda, which pulled on the sexual subtext of Handel’s stageworks in something resembling techniolour Buñuel.
Otherwise there were some effective moves. Roth Costanzo appeared in a stunning, ballooning red velvet costume (Raf Simons) – like a sort of futurist Pope – that gave way, as the music grew more intimate, to an melancholic gray-blue dress. He was ushered around the space by red-clad actors bearing bright white chemical lamps, which gave the show the feeling of an arcane science fiction ritual. The beatboxing and soundscapes – both from Jason Singh – that punctuated the sung pieces were eerily metallic desolate, as if to reveal the rusting, clanking machinery beneath the polished, gleaming surfaces of both Glass’ and Handel’s respective musics.
Most of the dance got lost in the enormity of the big space – I’m sure if I’d been closer the impact would’ve been greater – though the five combined bodies on a central platform in an excerpt from Glass’ 1988 1000 Airplanes on the Roof worked with the musical spectacle to creating something that was truly spellbinding. Live painting – spare, expressive calligraphic strokes from Glenn Brown – also accompanied the spectacle, and its monochromatic simplicity would have likely made an apt sole complement to the music in place of the video. Ultimately, the show felt both too busy and too empty – the very size of the space was felt more keenly the more attempts to ameliorate it were made with spectacle of one kind or another.
A pity, as the musical foundations of the show were finely crafted indeed, with remarkably intimate and poignant music-making in such an enormous room. Roth Costanzo’s voice buzzes with energy in both Baroque and modern numbers, spry in Handelian coloratura and laser-focused in Glass, where it is like a beam of light. ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ was delivered with an unvarnished simplicity, both creamy and keening in the da capo. The wordless gestures of ‘The Encounter’, an increasingly urgent scene of an encounter with ET by Glass, saw a sound of remarkable intensity and focus. 1998’s ‘In the arc of your mallet’, a setting of Sufi poet Rumi, had a still vocal centre that evoked Glass’ opera Satyagraha. Kamensek shaped and kneaded Glass’ repetitions into meaningful and expressive musical shapes, giving the music a strong sense of narrative movement and episodic colour, supported by a pliable ENO orchestra, who proved themselves equally engaged in Handel.
• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.