Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Les Enfants Terribles @ Barbican Theatre, London

27 – 29 January 2017

(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Based on Jean Cocteau’s eponymous novel, Philip Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles of 1996 is a dance-opera which involves singers and dancers. If this seems a relatively rare hybrid form today, things may simply have come full circle since Rameau’s operas could include both as standard. However, if works such as his Zaïs of 1748 were probably unusual in incorporating the dancers into the plot to a degree not witnessed in many other operas of the period, Les Enfants Terribles goes several steps further. It does not simply work the dancers into the story, but makes them the central characters, every bit as much as the singers are.

The story concerns a brother and sister, Paul and Lise, and the games they play in their own fantasy world. A series of events, including their mother’s death, lead them to isolate themselves from everyone around them, excepting a single friend Gérard, as they play the ‘Game’ in the special ‘Room’. Thus, what started as something very innocent becomes increasingly sinister as time goes on. Each at times tries to escape the situation by befriending others to the point of becoming obsessed with them. All of these relationships, however, turn sour for a variety of reasons including deliberate sabotage on the part of the other as they try to recapture what they once enjoyed together. It is, however, impossible to roll back time, and the resulting despair and frustration that they feel has tragic consequences.

The piece was first staged by Susan Marshall, but this production, which represents a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera, has been choreographed anew by Javier de Frutos, and the results are exceptionally imaginative and highly successful. The parts of Paul and Lise are not merely portrayed by both a singer and dancer, but by several dancers. This is clever for a variety of reasons including the fact that game playing involves taking on multiple personae. Thus, as we watch many people rushing around the stage we become caught up in the fantasy that the siblings have created and are playing out.

Emily Edmonds, Clemmie Sveaas, Jennifer Davis & Zenaida Yanowsky
(Photo: Bill Cooper)

The existence of singers and dancers also allows us to see what is happening on and beneath the surface. For example, early on Paul is struck by a snowball that contained a stone. The singer stands putting a brave face on it, while the dancer lies flat revealing just how much the blow really hurt him both physically and psychologically. As four dancing Pauls ‘writhe’ in a line they multiply out the degree to which his mind is disturbed. Similarly, the sight of several dancing Lises passing a gun between them with varying expressions on their faces brings into focus how the outcome might be dictated by how much at a specific second in time Lise is overcome with the urge to do the unthinkable.

Dancers move in ‘slow motion’ up and down steps that run along a wall, with one then repeatedly falling through a door. Alongside such innovative movements, however, there is some remarkable en pointe dancing from Zenaida Yanowsky which, although innovative in its execution as it can be used to demonstrate Lise feeling sexy, reveals classical perfection in terms of its underlying technique. Many of the early routines centre on figures interacting around a bathtub and the slickness of their movement is demonstrated by the fact that it hardly occurs to us just how difficult it must be to ‘tumble’ out of a bath in a second from having been situated inside it.

The evening begins with five minutes of dancing in silence, meaning that we are gripped before a single note has even been heard. The score itself is performed on three pianos played by Robert Clark, James Hendry and Kate Shipway while Timothy Burke conducts. It reveals all of the traits that we might expect from Glass but the choice of instrument works very well for the scenario. That the score feels lighter than those of, for example, Satyagraha or Akhnaten gives the music just enough sense of innocence to suggest the siblings could simply be indulging in harmless games. At the same time, however, the ‘minimalist’ use of repetition feels hypnotic as we are continuously drawn deeper into something that is becoming increasingly sinister and intense, and more and more difficult to escape.

The singing and dancing are strong across the board, but particular mention should go to Zenaida Yanowsky and Edward Watson who dance one incarnation of Lise and Paul respectively. They combine impeccable technique with innovation and integrity in their execution, and both prove to be exceptional psychological dancers. There is also a revealing moment when the stage is full of activity and yet this couple still draw us in with the stillness of their presence. The majority of the excellent singers (Jennifer Davis, Gyula Nagy, Paul Curievici and Emily Edmonds) are Jette Parker Young Artists. They also succeed in imbuing their characters with depth and emotion to such an extent that they feel every bit the equal of some of the most outstanding dancers of our generation, who themselves are performing at the height of their game.

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Les Enfants Terribles @ Barbican Theatre, London