St Kilda: Island of the Birdmen

Choeur et acrobats des Hainauts, Ensemble Musiques Nouvelles, Eolie Songe/Jean-Paul Dessy

Festival Theatre, 19 August 2009 4 stars

st kildaGroundhog days like this are becoming the norm at the Edinburgh International Festival with Jonathan Mills at the helm. There are so many continuities between St Kilda: Island of the Birdmen and Diaspora, the weekend's other major music-theatre experiment, one cannot help but suspect that there is a plan afoot.

Like Diaspora, St Kilda relies heavily on video and sound projection; like Diaspora, correspondingly, this has an impact on the techniques used to unfold narrative; and again like Diaspora there is a rasping interplay between familiarity and strangeness. In St Kilda, significant passages of the story are told in French. The strangeness here is very strange because there is also a connecting thread of Gaelic, which to my ears as well as I guess most of the audience's is more or less as foreign as French, yet its prosody is much more familiar.

Unlike Diaspora, which turned out to be, essentially, an art installation with live music (a weird throwback to the days of the silent movies), St Kilda: Island of the Birdmen is billed as an opera. It is cast in three acts, and evokes the decline and departure of a community that once thrived on its precarious Atlantic island west of Benbecula through the story of a young man Neil, and his lover Rachel—he living with constant environmental danger; she living in dread of the fulfilment of her premonitions of his death.

Marine tragedy is something of a trope in contemporary Scottish culture – whether James MacMillan's or George Gunn's take on the Piper Alpha disaster, the Maxwell Davies chamber opera The Lighthouse, David Ward's cantata To The Far Haaf, to a text by Shetland poet Robert Alan Jamieson, or Iain Crichton Smith's haunting poem about the sinking of the Iolare at the end of WW1, within sight of its Lewis destination. The authors of St Kilda, though, turn to older sources, especially to 1930s photography and film— Michael Powell's celebrated The Edge of the World in particular.

They bring a cinematic sensibility to this production, but not without cost: the blurring of the distinction between art installation and video requires some contemplation about means and objectives, a larger debate that this year's festival is hopefully fostering. Here, as with Diaspora, there was a sense of too many words and not enough poetry. Still, the cinematic benefits were at times striking. Writer Iain Finlay MacLeod and director Thierry Poquet evoke the sea as a locus of terror, effectively contrasting that with the sea as benign, bountiful, and beautiful. The recruitment of natural scenery, shot at telling angles, frames the narrative in ways that conventional theatrical equipment can only hint at. Finally, the scenes where acrobats perform roped dance while dangling precariously from the island clifftops—well I suppose that one feels that one ought to feel awed, but the ropes somehow domesticate the imagery.

Inside, in the theatre, the mostly-bare stage is given over to an ensemble of ten voices, while five musicians sit to the front, lifted out of the normal orchestral pit. Actually the voices flow freely around the space, walking up the stalls aisle, or appearing in the boxes above stage. Similarly free-acting in the space above the stage are three acrobat/dancers, either suspended and flown like pendulums, or climbing and descending ropes. Another layer of narrative is the splicing of a filmed 'mockumentary' story, set in the near-present, apparently about a man with a craving to return to St Kilda. This material, with its clichéd enigmatic gazes to the half-distance, could comfortably have been jettisoned to make room for a better-developed aural line of argument.

stkildaI have barely mentioned the music thus far, which might seem negligent in a work billed as an opera. As uncharitable thoughts brew, I'm inclined to contextualize by remarking that people are perfectly happy to sit through half-hours of tedium in Wagner's operas, waiting for the next gorgeous bit. So yes, St Kilda has some really gorgeous bits, and a lot of dross; but what is frustrating is that you'd think that the authors would recognize the merits of those gorgeous bits and build out around them. So what are they?

Highlight number one is right at the end, a wrenchingly beautiful duet between the Gaelic song of Alyth McCormack's character Catriona, and the solo cello of Sigrid Vandenbogaerde. This remarkable synthesis of traditional and contemporary sensibilities is thrillingly suggestive, but why not do more? Much, much more direct and close engagement between vocal lines and the immensely talented musicians?

Highlight number two, perhaps subconsciously an echo of Siegfried's Funeral March in Wagner's Gotterdammerung, is the desperately poignant recovery of the corpse at the climax of act II. Neil falls to his death during a fowling trip and his body is recovered and returned to the community, a scene hauntingly rendered in a vocal ensemble appealingly reminiscent of John Tavener.

Neil’s fall is stunningly and fleetingly realized by one of the acrobats, but the third highlight precedes this moment. It is a theatrical passage in which two acrobats represent the fowling adventure (see second picture). They swing behind a vast plastic sheet lit in orange and blue-green. As they thump into the sheet, the visuals dazzle while the aurals shock; the lighting projects their shadow from above so that, as they swing back and away from the sheet, the heart-stopping apparition of a startling and vertiginous drop is created.

Alyth McCormack's performance is marvellous throughout. Her 'character' Catriona represents St Kilda's muse, though one can't help smirking at the decision to dress her in a chocolate-brown slip. I dare say its flimsiness is meant to suggest etherealness, but aside from the differentiation from the sturdy garments called for by the prevailing climate, the authors were evidently innocent of the social discourse prompted by the arrival of coloured underwear in 1950s Hebridean communities! The dissonance symbolizes the disconnect between the idealized notion of an island paradise that continues from the cinematography of Powell's era to the present authors, versus the hard pragmatic reality of survival.

A final thought on both St Kilda and Diaspora: both invest heavily in sound projection technology, yet neither venture chose to explore the dimension afforded by sound-design techniques, online digital processing, acousmatics or electroaccoustic realization. The voice-of-Apollo realization in Birtwistle's Orpheus, heard at Friday's Prom, is just as it was twenty-five years ago, and far in advance of the imaginings of these present-day works.

By Peter Cudmore


DervishesRelated articles:

Concert Review: Diaspora at the Edinburgh Festival
Opera review: Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera in Edinburgh
Concert Review: Steve Reich evening at last year's Edinburgh Festival

Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum