The Navigator

Kayser, Watts, Trevigne, Larson, Ebrahim, ELISION/Nawri

Opéra National de Paris Bastille, 13 December 2009 4.5 stars

NavigatorLiza Lim's third opera, The Navigator, is not short of ideas. Its inspirations begin in ancient Greek myth, the Mahabharata and the story of Tristan and Isolde (as told in the Breton folk tale and by Wagner), and this is before one considers its explorations of desire, war, creation and annihilation, its structure through the in utero development of the five senses, its sexuality or obscure symbolism; and before one has heard a note.

Let's start here: One of the most striking things about this score, even for the listener who finds its super-rich mix of ideas and allusions too much to take in on a first hearing, is that it does not rest for a moment. The instrumentarium (including electric guitar and a sub-ensemble of Baroque harp, viola d’amore and recorders) is huge in possibilities, and Lim writes with seemingly limitless fecundity. From the first naked notes of the prelude, written for solo Ganassi recorder and played superbly by Genevieve Lacey, the composer's focus never drops.

Yet the prelude, an apparently transparent characterisation of The Beloved who is lost in the game of chance that is the opera's opening catastrophe, is no preparation for the music of the first scene, a frightening, writhing mass of contradictory and antagonistic musical ideas. The scene's title, The Unwinding, is conveyed in jagged folds that gradually parse out into an uneasy coherence (the sensation of unwinding – twisting, separating, revealing – is remarkably palpable). It ends (resolves isn’t the word) in an aria for Walter Benjamin's Angel of History, a stunning vocal set piece written for Deborah Kayser who, with the aid of a wacky whistle in the roof of her mouth, channels the animal-insect-human-divine voice of the Angel who is condemned to give powerless witness to the inexhaustible wreckage of history. Kayser's part is the most overtly virtuosic of the five voices; all were excellent, but I want to mention Talise Trevigne's contrasting role as The Beloved, which she blended exceptionally well with both instruments and the countertenor Andrew Watts as The Navigator.

NavigatorLim begins writing from a preoccupation with sound. One early reference point is coming across Penderecki when she was 11 or 12. That was some time ago now, but the comparison is a useful one, since whereas Penderecki is more interested in the presentation (sometimes as though arranged in a glass showcase) of novel sounds, Lim is interested in the dynamic potential of those sounds. Their creation, often at the edges of performance technique, as in the Angel of History aria, and their transformation through compositional intuition, lead to music that is continually unstable and in a constant process of destruction and renewal. Origin and extinction are almost simultaneous, as the Angel knows only too well.

What is surprising is the freedom of Lim’s notation. So many of the work’s sonic details are indicated verbally ('sing (approximate pitch)', 'improvise using text') or by freehand lines drawn above the stave to indicate the use of a whistle, etc. Other composers might feel compelled to write out in detail those cycles of renewal and degeneration, not least because they work against the natural 'musical' intuitions and training of so many players. But the working relationship between Lim and ELISION extends back more than 20 years and it is a testament to the value of such extended experience that Lim is able to direct her performers' energies towards precise expression without requiring over-specification of instruction.

There is too much music for me to continue in such detail. The range is vast and unpredictable: the contrast of the second scene is indicative. Here, The Beloved creates and encounters, through dream, her shadow, The Navigator. Together they embark on a journey of ecstatic sensory discovery. The instrumental writing is given almost exclusively to the Baroque trio, whose soft, perfectly balanced timbres produce music of a completely different stripe: lyrical, touching, gently layered like soft springing sheets.

NavigatorIf there are difficulties with the work, they are in these contrasts. Lim has raised the question, in relation to the Breton myth of Tristan and Isolde, of desire. Tristan kills himself because he believes he sees a black sail, a false symbol that Isolde is dead. But is this what he saw, or merely what he wanted to see? When love and death are so close, do we really know what we desire? As a dramatic question it is immensely powerful; but do Lim's apparently clear musical characterisations of the scenes of desire and of annihilation work against this ambivalence? Scene one is frightening and chaotic; scene two is lusciously beautiful: the sonic representations are striking, evocative and I think unmistakable. If there is an answer (and one shouldn't look for an answer, perhaps, but rather confirmation that the question is asked by the work, not of it), it may be found in the final scene, which speaks of hope and rebirth.

The Navigator has been staged in Brisbane, Melbourne and Moscow; this was its first performance as a concert work. The music is plenty strong enough for it to work on the concert platform, and it is to the audience's benefit to be able to concentrate on the intricate performance theatre of ELISION's playing. Only with that opening recorder solo did I miss the size and stillness of an opera house: it is a strange, brilliant way to begin, suggesting both private ritual and erotic tenderness, and its effect must be even greater in the theatre. If The Navigator is ever staged in the UK (and I hereby place the ball in the court of our chamber opera companies), do not miss it.

By Tim Rutherford Johnson

Photos from the original production by Justin Nicholas

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