In Denis and Katya, receiving its UK premiere with Music Theatre Wales, composer Philip Venables and librettist/director Ted Huffman address one of the most corrosive phenomena of our times with remarkable sensitivity and skill.
Many of us use media and social media that exploit people’s lives for voyeuristic entertainment, blurring the boundaries between reality and performance. It’s both cause and symptom of the dystopian hyper-reality that is central to this haunting, powerful rumination on tragic real-life events.
Denis and Katya were teenage Russian lovers who, in 2016, fled disapproving families to a remote cabin where they live-streamed their final hours, commented on by an online audience. The pair never actually appear in the opera, but their presence – and absence, following their final, fatal confrontation with police – is documented via layers of verbatim text gathered from witnesses: a journalist, neighbour and medic; a teacher and friend.
Their testaments, and descriptions of the couples’ stream, are spoken and sung in role-play by superb singer-actors, Emily Edmonds and Johnny Herford. With controlled tension they jump-cut between witnesses, framed by four, lyrical London Sinfonietta cellists stationed at corners of a bare stage. Behind them, video projections appear of Venables and Huffman’s messaging about how they should tell the story, each typed word an anxious, digital bleep.
It’s a bleak and brilliant piece – its expressiveness lies in its estranged, documentary style. The final video of the location from a moving train is shattering, etching Denis and Katya into our consciousness through opera as inventive as it is searching and direct.