Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Last Days: An hallucinatory reimagining of Gus Van Sant’s seminal film

8 October 2022

Although technically assured, Last Days fails to connect emotionally with its audience at the Linbury Theatre.

Last Days

Agathe Rousselle (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Kurt Cobain at The Royal Opera House? Well, not exactly. Co-commissioned by The Royal Opera and The Guildhall School of Music, this 90 minute piece takes Gus Van Sant’s 2005 film, Last Days as its starting point. In 1994 Cobain disappeared from a rehab facility, and ended up in a log cabin in Seattle where he took his own life. Van Sant’s film gives a fictionalised account of the final days in the life of Nirvana’s lead singer, the main character is based on Cobain but called Blake – here transformed by composer Oliver Leith and Art Director (and librettist) Matt Copson into something that approaches a meditation on the themes of addiction, celebrity, and loss, rather than going down the linear narrative route. Does it work? Yes, and no.

Leith’s sound world is primarily made up of string glissandi – constantly shifting and injecting the work with a feeling of neurosis – and leisurely chord progressions that contribute to the sense of timelessness. In addition, at moments of heightened tension we hear percussion and keyboards, while the entire score is accompanied by a pre-recorded tape which adds a further sonic dimension to proceedings. Leith’s unconventional vocal writing (stresses and pauses where you don’t expect them) adds to the otherworldliness of his mesmerising soundscape, but after a while the slowness and repetitiveness became wearisome. Halfway through the evening, after a seemingly endless progression of minims and semibreves one really hankered after a semiquaver or two.

And while Leith’s score is impressive on its own terms, it was hard to engage with any of the characters, as genuine emotion was kept at arm’s length. Maybe that was the point, but ultimately if you don’t have a vested interest in the way characters develop and interact with one another it’s hard to care what happens to them – in which case Last Days is more a series of reflective tableaux than a fully fledged opera, in the traditional sense of the word.

“Kurt Cobain at The Royal Opera House? Well, not exactly”

Whatever reservations we had about the piece itself, there can be no denying the commitment of everyone involved. Conductor Jack Sheen drew focussed playing from the members of 12 Ensemble and the GBSR Duo, Siwan Rhys and George Barton who played keyboards and percussion, whose unwavering musicianship made as strong a case as possible for the work. The main character, Blake, a non-singing role, was assigned to French actress Agathe Rouselle, whose magnetic stage presence provided the dramatic focal point of the evening. The rest of the cast coped valiantly with what was required of them, while Caroline Polachek’s pre-recorded crystalline soprano voice added an ethereal musical layer to proceedings.

Grace Smart’s suitably grungy set certainly provided an apt visual metaphor to the story, while the couture costumes by Balenciaga were visually arresting. One can’t fault the energy, resources and expertise that went into this project, nor The Royal Opera’s desire to produce new work that challenges our preconceived ideas of not only what opera is about, but what it’s for. Last Days, however, fails to engage emotionally with its audience, and is ultimately a work that can only be admired for its technical brilliance from afar.

Details of future performances can be found here.

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Last Days: An hallucinatory reimagining of Gus Van Sant’s seminal film