Opera doesn't get more topical. The Royal Opera’s double bill New Dark Age is a response to global anticolonialist rage and the coronavirus pandemic. The music is by contemporary composers, all women, and the reduced audience in the house can, in theory, be increased by millions of viewers online. Directors Ola Ince and Katie Mitchell, therefore, were presented with the challenge of keeping both the live audience and the small-screen viewers involved. It is the quality of the music itself, however, that ultimately makes Mitchell successful in this enterprise and Ince less so. In the first part, The Knife of Dawn, Ince recreates a suffocating prison cell scene where a political activist motivates himself to keep up a hunger strike. She has a formidable ally in baritone Peter Brathwaite as Guyanese poet Martin Carter. Carter led protests against the British government in the struggle for independence of British Guiana (now Guyana).

Peter Brathwaite in <i>The Knife of Dawn</i> © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Peter Brathwaite in The Knife of Dawn
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

In a tireless one-hour long monologue, weaving together Carter’s poetry, political ideals and personal hopes, Brathwaite creates a charismatic portrayal of a true hero in extremis. His delivery is so clear that you don’t notice the lack of subtitles. Unfortunately, Hannah Kendall’s musical ideas do not stretch out to 60 minutes. The cumulatively dripping keyboard and strings suggest dampness seeping out of the dark, steely set, but the repetitive vocal writing undermines Brathwaite’s fine acting. In spite of the off-stage trio that eventually joins in to voice Carter’s hallucinations, in the end it feels as if musically the piece hasn’t made any progress. However, I suspect that watching this online greatly reduces the combined effects of the jittery monochromatic video, flashing lights and disturbing sounds.

Peter Brathwaite in <i>The Knife of Dawn</i> © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Peter Brathwaite in The Knife of Dawn
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

In the second piece, A New Dark Age, the music is shot through with such energy that it hardly needs the accompanying video. Compositions by Missy Mazzoli, Anna Meredith and Anna Thorvaldsdottir are fused together in a visceral cantata about pandemic-induced loss and loneliness. Singers Nadine Benjamin, Anna Dennis and Susan Bickley play themselves onstage and on the screen behind them. Semi-anonymous under their face coverings, they travel on practically empty trains and walk through city streets past public health signs urging social distancing. Above all they seek to avoid contact with passers-by. These images, now everyday reality throughout the world, are scored by relentless urban rhythms, which are muted by a keening clarinet, which is then drowned out by the powerful incantations of the singers. 

The most poignant juxtaposition of image and music is a train station with travellers moving in slow motion to a richly textured choral setting of an Icelandic psalm. Thorvaldsdottir's lament for the victims of the pandemic is moving even without understanding the words, although subtitles would have been welcome. Actually, given the high voices, they would also have been useful for the English text. The performances, however, are eloquent enough without subtitling. The trio of soloists is excellent, as are the Royal Opera House musicians conducted by Natalie Murray Beale. They immediately drag you on board this ever-transitioning emotional journey. Halfway into the meanderings on film you start to wonder about the video’s added value, but director Katie Mitchell has a wry ending in store.

Susan Bickley, Nadine Benjamin and Anna Dennis in <i>A New Dark Age</i> © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Susan Bickley, Nadine Benjamin and Anna Dennis in A New Dark Age
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

It turns out that the two sopranos and mezzo Susan Bickley are converging towards Covent Garden, where they are scheduled to give this very performance. They make their way to the stage accompanied by a lyrical melody by Anna Meredith, which she brutally undercuts with a layer of asynchronous percussion. Screen and stage now reflect each other – three singers and three chairs, in the flesh and onscreen, just like the performance itself. Mitchell leaves no doubt as to what she thinks about this tenuous state of affairs in the performing arts. The real singers melt into the shadows, their doubles onscreen dissolve into a pixellated soup. Extinction threatens for art forms that thrive on live audiences. At the same time, what we've just heard is a testament to the resilient power of music and the performers who keep it alive. 



This performance was reviewed from the Royal Opera House's video stream

***11