Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival has once again succeeded in showcasing with flair some of the most daring and innovative small-scale operas. This Sunday, a diverse audience gathered at London’s Riverside Studios for the performance of Louis Andriessen’s recent monodrama Anaïs Nin (2009-10). There was a lively appetizer to each of the six main productions that day in the form of Lite Bites, a series of amusing micro-operas staged in the foyer area. ‘After a long day at the office, a businessman’s evening of watching The X Factor is ruined by the dulcet tones of the opera singer who lives next door’, read one wry explanatory note. Even before entering Studio Two for their intended entertainment, audience members were drawn into the effervescent world of opera that is so effectively promoted by this company.

Phoebe Haines © Claire Shovelton
Phoebe Haines
© Claire Shovelton

Andriessen’s monodrama traces a particular chapter in the life of French-Cuban writer, Anaïs Nin. Acclaimed as a pioneering exponent of female erotica, Nin typically concentrates on the analysis of women’s sexuality as a creative force. She is perhaps best remembered for her journal writings, which explore relationships with multifarious lovers. The writings chart, with characteristic frankness, the absorbing webs of ecstasy, insecurity, lies, loneliness, and possession that evolved from these meetings. Many of the journal entries were withheld from publication during Nin’s lifetime so as to avoid causing distress to the individuals described. However, her private diaries have gradually enjoyed a posthumous unveiling, making Andriessen’s subject matter all the more pertinent.

The narrative of the monodrama is derived from the unabridged publication of Nin’s journal Incest: From a Journal of Love (1992). Covering the years 1931-33 in Paris, she documents her re-encounter with her father, the composer Joaquín Nin. After his 20-year absence from her life, they embark on an incestuous affair amidst a sea of other lovers. The opera drives towards this as its point of climax, alluding along the way to her relationships with the actor Antonin Artaud, the psychiatrist René Allendy, and the writer Henry Miller.

The musical ensemble, described in Andriessen’s own words as ‘a little circus band’, brilliantly evokes the 1930s Parisian Jazz scene. Saxophones, clarinets, and a prominent hi-hat call to mind the skittish yet sensual sound world of Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins. Andriessen is able to switch deftly between public and private music. His richly textured score sees the emergence of soloists exuding their own sonorous charm, of instrumental groups vying playfully with the singer for precedence, and of the ensemble gathering together as a dazzling and virile orchestral force. A superb performance by Ensemble BPM ensured that the music both underpinned and thrived on the changeability of Nin’s character. This was an impressive achievement, especially since the ensemble performed, as instructed by the score, without a conductor.

Phoebe Haines was strong in the role of Anaïs Nin. This was certainly a difficult part to take on, with Andriessen’s vocal writing steeped in the unique abilities of his original performer, the highly impulsive soprano Cristina Zavalloni, who premiered the work in 2010 at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, Siena. As her male lovers appeared through the medium of fragmented film, Haines opted to recount their liaisons with a stance of sagacious poise rather than outright unbounded fervour. Perhaps the amplification of the voice could have been investigated to a greater extent: Andriessen’s addition of the microphone opens a doorway for extreme experimentations with articulation, dynamic, and projection, and these were not capitalised on in this production. However, this may have been due to a few technical glitches relating to the amplification that were swiftly dealt with and fortunately did not mar the overall performance.

As the short narrative draws to a close Anaïs Nin is left with a perpetual hunger for emotional engagement. Her father’s presence prevails in the form of his musical arrangement of an old Basque Christmas carol, quietly crackling through a phonograph horn. The incorporation of fragmented film and sound in this monodrama was a masterful stroke on Andriessen’s part, allowing not only for a detailed scrutinizing of Nin’s psyche, but also for a suggestive representation of men as her muses rather than her conquests. The work garners a nuanced understanding of this literature, liberating it with style from the constraints of a ‘Steamy Reads’ library classification.

Andriessen continues to force generic hybrids through his adventurous collisions of film, music, and theatre. This work certainly bears witness to some of his most compressed and radiant scoring, while simultaneously exhibiting the efforts of an intelligent and gifted dramatist. It was an excellent choice by Tête à Tête, and in this sensitive production served as a provocative offering on the final day of the festival.