Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Constantinople @ Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London

21, 22, 23, 24, 25 March 2007

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House)

Constantinople stands on the cusp between East and West and, like the city, embraces the different spiritual cultures on each side of the divide. It would have us believe that there is less of a division between Islam and Christianity than we might think and Constantinople (now Istanbul) is an inspirational city that bridges the differences through peaceful co-existence.

It’s a comforting idea. But this is an evening of sensations, rather than ideas, a flow of imagery and sound that is beautiful and mesmerising. This multi-media event originated in Canada and the run of just five performances in the Linbury Studio constitutes its European premiere. It is the work of a whole creative team, headed by composer Christos Hatzis and director/choreographer Marie-Jose Chartier. Difficult to describe precisely, it’s an interplay of live and recorded sound, instruments, singers and images. Stage poetry may sum it up best.

The work runs for just short of 90 minutes without interval and is divided into eight parts, titled Creeds Kyrie Odd World Ah Kalleli! Dance of the Dictators On Death and Dying Old Photographs and Alleluia, each exploring an aspect of spiritual harmony.

The star of the show is the Gryphon Trio, one of Canada’s leading chamber ensembles, who play Hatzis’ varied score with precision and passion. They are the still dark centre of the work, around which everything else revolves. Their music ranges in inspiration from church chorales to jazz and world music, at times sounding like a Shostakovich chamber work, at others like a Palm Court Trio and never less than enthralling to listen to.

The highlights of the evening are when they are onstage alone, the singers, Patricia O’Callaghan and Maryem Hassan Tollar, getting rather less rewarding material. This is no reflection on them as performers they give it their all but despite, or maybe partly because of, their earnest delivery, what they’re given to sing often sounds slightly crass and certainly repetitive. This includes “Kyrie” sung over and over again, as is the “Alleluia” which ends the piece. The subtlety and complexity of much of Hatzis’ writing is absent at these times.

The Trio, onstage throughout, are framed by a gauze arch and this allows them to be engulfed in projected images that create different worlds around them. Most effective are the Dictators section, with fleeting silhouettes of tanks, muffled explosions and a mounting tension that creates an ominous atmosphere of conflict, and the later Old Photographs section, the most beautiful part of the whole experience. Against a background of wistful sound, we see a deluge of people in old monochrome photos (almost the only imagery of humans to appear). This accelerates into a fast tango-like sequence with an accompanying rush of faces, many of them children, building into a montage of humanity before returning to the quiet reflection of the opening.

If you’re looking for narrative, Constantinople might prove frustrating. As an immersion in a range of contemplative scenas, with only the slightest hint of humour, this is a rewarding evening. It may take itself slightly too seriously but there is much beauty in both the visuals particular credit goes to the sensitive lighting design and a good deal of the music.

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Constantinople @ Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London