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Glass Human

by on 30 October 2022

Abrasive, Acrobatic, Absorbing

Glass Human

by Samantha Fernando, libretto by Melanie Wilson

Glyndebourne Productions at the Jerwood Studio, Glyndebourne until 29th October, then on tour until 5th December

Review by Mark Aspen

Opera in the popular mind tends to be associated with “grand”, everything large scale: sets, orchestra, chorus, five hours of strong plot and heightened emotions.  “Wagnerian” becomes an adjective in general use.  You can go really big and have more than one orchestra or chorus; think something like Berlioz’s Les Troyens.  Opera is seen as extrovert!

Glyndebourne’s new chamber opera Glass Human, in contrast, in a minimalistic piece, simple set, five musicians, three singers.   Heightened emotions are there, but it is a mood piece.  This is opera as introvert! … Its introversion, though, is its strength.  It looks at one human emotion, loneliness, and surgically dissects it. 

The three lonely beings are Grace, a first-year university student; a middle-aged woman, Oma, a Syrian refugee; and Edward, aging, a widower in the early stages of dementia.   The space they occupy is a circle, which confines them.  In Joanna Parker’s economic semi-abstract set, a circular metal-lattice bench represents the tower block they live in, close by but far apart, isolated, fearful both of what lies outside and of what lies inside, inside their minds.   Do the reverberating sounds they hear arise inside them or outside in the shafts that service the tower block’s ventilation, services, lifts?  Charlotte Burton’s design of the lighting is equally effective in its simplicity; the bench is under-lit.  We are looking not so much at these three individuals, as looking into them.

Director Lucy Bailey creates an atmosphere that accentuates the tension, as the opening low-pitch chest-echoing rumble could be thunder, for pizzicato harp and viola suggests a rainstorm; or it could be the echo of voices in the tower’s voids … or in their imaginations.  Bailey has the characters fiddling with their fingers, counting off … something, nervously.  The production is a concatenation of the music, words, sound effects and subtle lighting changes.

Grace in particular is full of nervous energy, she is away from home and alone and gradually falls in a paralysing state of agoraphobia.  Outside her flat all seems threatening.  Ironically, social media, the must-have of all young people, for her becomes antisocial media.  It isolates her, as she does not feel part of the lives of her peers, as they post puff and promote perfection.  Hungarian soprano, Anna Cavaliero fills the role of Grace, colouring the notes with a nervous embellishment that constantly checks itself in a looping reflexive timbre.  Forever frowning, Cavaliero’s Grace seems almost apologetic as she slips back into spoken text.  Her character is mousy, defensive and withdrawn; always metaphorically looking over her shoulder, full of apprehension.  She does not even answer voice-messages from her worried parents, for she feels that no-one is “alive in the world today”.

Edward, his mind a jumble, is a figure of profound pathos.  He is struggling to work out what happened to his wife, Lisa, yet he can remember little episodes from his childhood in Boston Bay, Jamaica.  What clutters his mind, though, are the shopping lists of groceries that he must get for his meagre meals.  He is confused, but he knows he is confused.  “I am not enough, somehow”, he says.  Denver Martin Smith is to be greatly admired for taking on this demanding role at the eleventh hour, when his predecessor had to withdraw.  On the opening night one would not have known that he was only 24 hours into the role.   South African bass-baritone Smith has a rich and gentle voice ideal to the part and he acts the role with great sympathy.  “Let me come back to myself”.

Oma, having fled war, finds herself in a state of limbo, as she awaits leave to remain. In her mind, however, she has not left war behind.  She still sees “humans broken, blood on the streets”.   It is she, however, that reaches out.  She takes a misdirected letter to Edward’s flat, but is puzzled by his confused state.  There is something of a Mimi in Oma, but her loneliness is not redeemed by the suddenness of love, although she too awaits her fate.  Camille Maalawy, in the role of Oma, is a versatile singer covering an eclectic range of musical genres from lieder and oratorio to Jewish and Arabic song.  Her mezzo voice has a warmth and softness, and her wistful half-smile speaks of Oma’s repressed humanity.  Oma sums up her predicament, “I have glass walls around me”.

All three experience the glass walls; indeed their opening trio states they are “searching for connections”.  In the closing moments of the three-quarters of an hour of this concise chamber piece, the rumble in the lift shaft grows loud enough for all three to come out in trepidation to investigate.  A sinkhole opens beneath them, but the setting is more North Ken inner city that North York moors, so as librettist Melanie Wilson reveals, the sinkhole is allegorical, a fourth character.  Nevertheless, they can “face their deepest fears and wounds and, in so doing, can find connection with each other” … and they can risk a smile!

There are however other connections.  Embedded in the score are real-life voices of people in community organisations in four of the cities to which Glass Human tours this autumn.  Wilson is keen to incorporate a “deprioritised” operatic hierarchy to the score, but the use of verbatim dialogue does not really provide emotional depth or poetry, a prerequisite to the traditional opera libretto.  But then, here it is not meant to.  The dialogue is natural, raw and abrasive.

Grace in particular can be very abrasive in the directness of her dialogue with herself.  It is stuff to make the proverbial maiden aunt’s hair curl.

What is remarkable about Glass Human is the music.  Samantha Fernando’s score gives a tight group of only five musicians a broad palette and canvas, and under the baton of Ashley Beauchamp, they bring out the most extraordinary range of sounds that are nothing short of acrobatic.  Drones and pops, trills and chimes, buzzes and hums, all are imaginatively drawn from the instruments.  The strings, viola (Daisy Spiers), cello (Rosie Banks-Francis) and harp (Sue Blair) produce rainstorms and tears, groans and rumbles.  Percussionist Cameron Sinclair, with his impressive rows of drumsticks, brushes and bows, teases out a lyricism from drums and cymbals, while Iñigo Mikeleiz puts his accordion thorough a plethora of unexpected effects, sometimes percussive, sometimes subliminal.  Fernando clearly likes tonal ambiguity, but if all this sounds musically gimmicky, it has an integral quality that makes it intriguing to listen to.  It is decorated with dissonance, whilst at heart diatonic and melodious.  There is a hint of Poulenc about it.

There is something about Glass Human that feels incomplete.  The piece is gripping yet it doesn’t go anywhere and feels like it should be part of a bigger work where there is a defined plot.  However, this is not its purpose and, as a mood piece, it absolutely excels.

As a study of loneliness, it is incisive and intimate, as an opera, totally absorbing.   

Mark Aspen, October 2022

Photography by Richard Hubert Smith ©Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.

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