Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Pictures From An Exhibition @ Young Vic, London

8-23 May 2009

The concept of dancing to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and interspersing the action with scenes from the life of the most debauched and unruly Russian is a brilliant one.

Hats off for that alone.

But because the biographical element is inflated with one or two rudimentary facts and two or three spurious ones, the piece doesn’t work either as a satisfying narrative or an abstract interpretation of music. The piece is made up of both familiar and rare arrangements of Mussorgsky, from lush orchestral and solo piano to electronic dance music.

Ever since Mussorgsky began composing, his music has been sanitised by other composers and arrangers who saw fit to tinker and make patronising “improvements” to his rough, original genius. The last in a long line of insults comes from pianist Carl Joseph, who has been persuaded to add water to the original piano score and to smear sentimental touches and connective tissue (to borrow a term from the sausage industry) to certain parts of the music.

Nobody would accept this for Mozart, or Bach, so what is going on? If the company doesn’t trust Mussorgsky’s music to be interesting enough without being tampered with, why did they use any of it? The overall effect of this could be summed up in a description of a tableau from the show: A man in a bear costume wearing a ruff holds Mussorgsky down as another man in a bear suit pisses into the composer’s mouth.

The man playing Mussorgsky is dressed as Matthew Barney’s goat-man, with chequered trousers and fire-engine red hair, speaking from Mussorgsky’s letters and from other invented sources as he dances and acts. He is likeable, and gets some laughs for his comic efforts, but the show is too disparate to have any real centre of gravity, despite the emotional outbursts.

The imagery was sometimes arresting and bizarre and sometimes banal and obvious. Babies’ bottles used to sup vodka, real eggs (sucked and smashed), day-glo demons and clowns on stilts. This might be explained by the fact that two choreographers (Frauke Requardt and Daniel Kramer) worked on this piece, and so there were many compromises made along the way.

Mussorgsky’s original score is so full of character and dramatic twists that it can be tempting to illustrate it with dancing caricatures, simply following the music as it goes. This was the method used all too often, but towards the end, as the Catacombs section occurs (choreographed by Requardt) with its harrowing, thrilling sound-world, the movement became as disturbing and innovative as the music, with bodies slapping in a grim, sexless parody of lust. A less literal interpretation of the score obviously bore fruit.

The show wasn’t intended as an accurate biographical account of Mussorgsky’s life, but with so many pointless elements it seemed that the show didn’t live up to its own limitless potential.

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