Immersive, promenade theatre is supremely fashionable at the moment, and it is right that someone should try to harness this trend for opera, the art form which above all others asks us for a personal emotional response. Psyche asks us to get up close and personal with opera (alone, barefoot and blindfolded) for ten minutes, and the results are, to me, spine-tingling. It is certainly an unnerving experience (and not recommended for those of a nervous disposition): when your blindfold is eventually removed, you are plunged into darkness so thick and black that you cannot see your hand in front of your face; but you are aware that, somewhere, someone else is in the room with you, and you are not quite certain of their intentions. As a glowing light gradually glows, we see that in fact we are alone with an opera singer, Chiara Vinci, who sings and acts for us alone with consummate skill. The sheer luxury of being this close to someone with such extraordinary talent is, for me, the best part of Psyche; the scenario of the piece (it would be an exaggeration to call it a plot), though I won’t spoil it for you, is less exciting for itself than for the potential it demonstrates for opera to work successfully in this medium. Perfectly positioned at Tête à Tête, Psyche pushes the boundaries of opera in the right direction: I look forward to seeing this idea developed further by this, and other companies.

<i>Psyche</i> © Claire Shovelton
Psyche
© Claire Shovelton

On The Axis of this World takes us on Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, its libretto using words lifted verbatim from the Scott Polar Research Institute archives. Matt Rogers has composed a series of interesting, angular sounds with determined harmonies which, rather than overlapping, seem to intersect, or interrupt each other. Rogers’ inclusion of an accordion (played by Bartosz Glowacki) is a particularly fine touch, giving an immediately maritime air to proceedings: it reminds us, alternately, of sailors’ sea shanties, and the foghorns of slow, massive ships. Some conspicuously skilful and committed cello playing from Corentin Chassard, who led the ensemble with natural charisma, and a fine clarinet line (and sonic penguin impression) from Tom Jackson, complete the trio.

Rogers creates a powerful sense of coldness and isolation which fits his subject perfectly: sometimes the music seems to melt and flow in eerie droning, while at other times it resolves into shining dissonance, marking out a rarefied and unearthly sound world accentuated by whistles and sparks, or little riddling squeaks, like someone rubbing a wet finger on a cold window. One especially fine moment was Rogers’ brilliant evocation of a flock of birds in a quavering, unmistakable sound picture. Our explorers (the magnificent baritone Nicholas Crawley, countertenor Magid El-Bushra and actor Gary Merry) pursue their tragic Antarctic adventure with granular scientific focus: and unfortunately, though always well sung or spoken, this is the flaw of this piece. Despite the romance of Scott’s exploration, the dry scientific observations and calculations Rogers has picked out for us tend more to communicate the stifling boredom and frustration of an expedition going wrong, and ultimately seem dull and lifeless, though conveying the intense scientific curiosity behind the mission. Assured musicianship creates plenty of atmosphere, but the spare production and lifeless narrative ensure it, ultimately, takes us nowhere, and its sudden stop feels like a mistake, rather than a tragic end.

Nicholas Crawley and Magid El-Bushra © Claire Shovelton
Nicholas Crawley and Magid El-Bushra
© Claire Shovelton

Trevor Wishart introduced Encounters in The Republic of Heaven by asking us “to think of it like aural cinema”. And that is, indeed, the best way to describe it. Wishart spent a year recording local voices in North-East England: little children, soldiers and fishermen, a belly dancer with a humorous secret, a butcher, a poet, an aged farmer’s daughter in her twilight years, among many others. Next, he created software to extract and refine elements of all this speech: sometimes whole sentences, sometimes words, sometimes simply vowel or consonant sounds. The resulting kaleidoscope of noise becomes his orchestra, as he weaves the softly-accented samples into a symphony-like work. To listen to it, we sit in the middle of Kings Place Hall One (renowned for its superb acoustic), surrounded by a ring of speakers. Earplugs are handed out, in case the volume proves uncomfortable: in fact, it is perfect. Sinking into your seat and closing your eyes, you are suddenly enveloped by a three-dimensional ball of sound, as if you are sitting inside a dynamic sound sculpture. Children run up behind you, giggle, sing a nursery rhyme and run away again; while an old lady describes a budgerigar, we hear it fluttering in circles around the ceiling; the pop and crackle of consonants gives texture and bite, while vowels are drawn out at times to create the impression of song, accentuating the natural lilt of a North country accent. I was particularly struck by how much more effective three-dimensional sound is than, for example, cinema in 3D: Wishart plays a series of tricks and games which make the various characters, and their small, associative stories, really feel gloriously alive around us. Without any linear narrative, Encounters evokes a series of moods, memories and emotions which take us on our own imaginative journey, far away from ourselves, immersed in a truly original, random and playful world; it leaves us feeling deliciously refreshed and strangely relaxed. As I made my way back to Kings Cross, every scrap of overheard conversation seemed like another coda to his psychedelic, shimmering, beautiful creation: Wishart’s careful fascination with, and luxurious delight in, the texture of the human voice will haunt you for days afterwards.