Even You, Lights, Cannot Hear Me/Nero Monologues review at Bridewell Theatre – ‘mixed-quality new works’

Kate Symonds-Joy and James Schouten in Even You, Lights, Cannot Hear Me
by -

Opera in the City Festival’s inaugural programme includes this double bill of recent works, both from the avant-garde end of the spectrum. First up is Simone Spagnolo’s Even You, Lights, Cannot Hear Me, the shorter piece at half an hour in length.

It derives from a monologue in Chekhov’s The Seagull, newly translated by Dimitry Devdariani. As the programme note puts it – not quite avoiding pretension in doing so – “two singers, depicted as two beings embodied into one entity, wander a surreal, yet exquisite cosmos, in which nothingness and wholeness co-exist, timelessly”.

The singers – mezzo-soprano Kate Symonds-Joy and baritone James Schouten – are seated back to back, forming the single entity referred to in the notes. Schouten is initially turned towards the piano, which he plays as he sings the often enigmatic text. Facing the audience, meanwhile, is mezzo Symonds-Joy, mouthing the words he sings. As she does so, she picks up pebbles, then drops them in time with the music. Later, the two performers’ positions switch round.

There’s a mildly spiritual quality to the result, even if it frequently feels – perhaps deliberately – intangible and indefinite.

Sarah Toth’s Nero Monologues also has a literary background – in this case, texts from Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems, translations of the public and private poems of the Emperor Nero. These form the basis for an over-extended piece in which Toth’s Nero lives out his final hours in the company of dancer Louis Ducasse, who for some reason wears a balaclava helmet over his face.

Toth’s dramatic instincts and genuine vocal talent are fatally compromised by weak diction: not nearly enough of the text comes over. But the piece is founded on a viable idea, and its effective scoring for piano and string quartet is skilfully realised.

Two mixed-quality recent works feature in the first Opera in the City Festival