It begins with the gaze. Starstruck glances give way to a gentle caress, before sexuality and desire explode on stage, bodies intertwined under a stark, unfeeling light; an embrace of total physicality that sinks, over and over, down to the floor, in peace. The haze and frenzy of desire die with the light of day; one lover slips away in the darkness, and the other is left alone with the night. The lovers meet again, and part again, before the next day’s happiness gives way to a broiling, erotic fury at betrayal, a coruscating, red-white rage that transfigures that initial caress into violence and that initial embrace into brutality. The lovers part again. Death overtakes the first lover, and night’s obsidian coffin entombs her one last time; as she has slept, so she dies – alone.

Claire Booth © Bill Cooper | ROH
Claire Booth
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Thus we come to the end of the first part of Netia Jones’s elegiac Atthis, a new production of Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ song cycle of the same name (2009), with soprano Claire Booth and the London Sinfonietta at the Linbury Studio Theatre, all marshalled by Pierre-André Valade. Jones (who recently won plaudits with Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland) precedes the song cycle proper with a ballet described above, set to Haas’ String Quartet no. 2. Based on the love poetry of Sappho, the song cycle traces precisely the opposite journey to the ballet, tracing agonisingly the psychological detail of the lover’s despair at her abandonment, and then the radiance of Spring, of a new love affair taking root and growing in the heart.

Haas’ music is well-known for its fascination with darkness and light, and Jones’ production resonates perfectly with the score, whilst never overplaying its hand. The stage of the Linbury is lacquered to a mirror sheen, reflecting the bodies of the dancers (Laure Bachelot and Rachel Maybank) and the overhead lights. Claire Booth lies, sits, or kneels on a ledge suspended in the middle of a great circle; the moon, the sun, a screen for psychologically exploratory projections, and a symbol of the cycle of loneliness, love, death, and rebirth that makes Atthis such a chilling piece of theatre.

The result of these tricks with illumination is that Booth often disappears into the projected light, particularly with the blinding sunrise of the second half of the song cycle proper. Her voice becomes just another instrument, with Haas asking that the soprano sing in three distinct ways at certain times; spoken, truly cantabile, and as glissando. These categories must be kept distinct throughout a piece of roughly 40 minutes, and Booth was almost unbelievably assured throughout, blending expertly with the London Sinfonietta through all of Haas’ relentless changes of texture, putting nary a note out of place, even with the stomach-churning microtones of the score crunching around her. Under Valade, the Sinfonietta brought off faultlessly the challenging and mind-expanding extended harmony characteristic of Haas.

Rachel Maybank (Atthis) and Laure Bachelot (Sappho) © Bill Cooper | ROH
Rachel Maybank (Atthis) and Laure Bachelot (Sappho)
© Bill Cooper | ROH

Structurally, Atthis is largely successful, though I wasn’t without reservations. Haas’ music is not as active as that of Boulez, say, or Ferneyhough; where their music revels in great amounts of information carefully handled, listening to Haas is often like observing the shifting of tectonic plates, as what seems like a rational musical surface shifts imperceptibly until, several minutes on, you realise you are in a totally unfamiliar landscape. That’s not to say there is no activity; perhaps my favourite passage was one in which a melody appeared played with at least three different tunings of each pitch, an excruciating but overwhelming effect.

Laure Bachelot (Sappho) and Rachel Maybank (Atthis) © Bill Cooper | ROH
Laure Bachelot (Sappho) and Rachel Maybank (Atthis)
© Bill Cooper | ROH
This slow pace affects the song cycle in particular. Where the quartet section was beholden strictly to the drama of the music, in the song cycle the drama is beholden to the text, and the pace of delivery of that text is often almost glacial, with long melismas or repetitions. Add to this the necessity of letting the orchestra’s shattering, pitiless psychological delvings speak convincingly, and an absolute minimum of movement onstage (with the attention being drawn exclusively by the lighting and projections) and the piece becmes rather heavy weather, losing some momentum towards the close.

What’s more, although Haas’ sonic experimentation is brilliant and absolutely unique in its single-mindedness and detail, I’m not sure it’s always hugely responsive to the text, save a couple of instances, the most moving of which was certainly the unison, sweltering repeated chords depicting the warmth and languor of the satisfied lovers’ embrace in the spring of their relationship towards Atthis’ conclusion.

That said, the horrific naturalism of the ballet and the unfussy but deeply penetrating vision of Netia Jones’s designs complement precisely the perfection achieved by Claire Booth and the London Sinfonietta. Atthis fits a huge amount of passion into a slim 55 minutes, with a core of rare but thrillingly unsettling emotional intensity.