Aperghis/Bagnoli/Pousseur: Ismène

Marianne Pousseur (voice), Jean-Luc Plouvier (sound design)

Balsamine theatre, Brussels, 16 March 2010 4.5 stars

IsmeneArs Musica is a contemporary music festival that takes place across Belgium each year. Spanning a full month, it covers the spectrum of experimental, jazz, music theatre, opera, and dance forms. This year's line-up is particularly strong, with performances from the Arditti Quartet, Ictus, Ensemble Musique Nouvelles, and Alain Louvier, amongst many others.

The 2008 edition of the festival had seen the premiere of a remarkable collaborative work based on the left wing Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos' Ismène. The homonymous opera for solo voice and electronic score was 'created' by Marianne Pousseur and Enrico Bagnoli under the auspices of Compagnie Khroma, with music by the renowned Greek (primarily) theatre composer George Aperghis. The production premiered tonight in Brussels' small but distinctive Balsamine Theatre as part of its return run for the 2010 festival. Directed once again by Bagnoli and with sound design by Ictus' Jean-Luc Plouvier, the star of the show is once again Pousseur, who gives an astonishing tour-de-force of haunted and vivified reminiscence in the title role.

Ismène — Antigone's more dutiful, lawful sister, and Oedipus and Jocasta's incestuous daughter — has long played an ancillary role in the canon of Greek Mythology. Bearing none of the revolutionary fervour of her sister, nor the archetypal complex of her father and half brother, she has been reduced to something of a cipher of obligation, honest yet prudent, moral but meek. Ritsos' poem, and this opera likewise, seek to correct this neglect by turning their focus onto her. Now much older and totally at the mercy of other times, consumed by memories of her life, Ismène rues her exclusion from martyrdom with Antigone yet grasps towards a kind of serenity in the face of her inevitable death. Addressing herself to a young guardsman who had come to the palace to pass on messages from his ailing father, Ismène offers a monologue teetering at the edge of reason. Occasionally lucid, often wildly consumed with past events and peoples, the text is rich with glowing sensual reminiscences and glances back to childhood.

The opera's materials and action are thus concentrated in the extreme. Yet through the force of the central performance and the extreme dramatic focus of the music and the direction, the production grips from its first shadowy whispers to its last dying light. Showing conviction in every pore, the opera uses its limited resources to dynamic effect. Creative and spell-binding lighting and stage effects are employed sparingly and in precise weightings, just as the music slowly winds its way from voice to speaker and back, only delicately forging a presence in the flow of this enigmatic work.


Beginning silhouetted in weak neon light against pitch black surrounding, a desolate Pousseur — seated and totally naked except for daubed white wax, a speaker, and long strings of beads around her neck — offers ten minutes of disturbed lament for her lost life, calling up happy moments from childhood, reflecting on the distance that separates and closes down that time from now. Slowly we hear echoes of the voice from the multi-channel array dotted around the space, but it is only now that she starts to sing. Beginning in an antic recitative that flicks between high lying leaps and strangulated lines, and a warmer legato line full of buzzing hums and intimate details of intonation and cadence (obliquely recalling the musical systems of Ancient Greece as she goes), the music is seen to become a vehicle for Ismène, allowing her and us passage into heightened reminiscence coloured by busier movement and event. As she speaks of Antigone, Polycines, Creon, and of funerals, burying and death, she moves through eight suspended orange lights, each bursting with dripping wax as she passes. The music ceases, and Ismène returns to flat speech, wondering at the expanses of her memory.

Later, as she moves to the back, Ismène makes captivating reflected puddles in the wall at the back of the theatre by her movement through the water of her stage. The music likewise builds in texture, spinning the singer's line, creating an effect of illusion whereby live singing and recording imbricate into each other. The speaker on the singer's arm adds further confusion when it, too, starts to mimic the voice, adding a further stereoscopic level to the auditory dance. Pousseur turns in circles, becoming unstuck in time all the while lamenting the sad fate of her father and the father of the young guardsmen, regretting that things have little changed since that earlier time of myth. Later still Pousseur applies war paint, inhabiting for a while the angry visage of Antigone. Against a backing track of keening low vocal drones, Pousseur lets loose her full instrument, tone stretched to a grainy effulgence heavily reminiscent of traditional Bulgarian vocal style, vanquishing in strained tremor the quietude of her past.

Elsehwere, music allows a more intimate construction of memory when sweet falling major-thirds, echoed by glossolalic vocal samples in gentle rainbow cascades, call up tender feelings for her sister, and for the natural world around her. As passages of speech and intimate song draw us towards a placid and supine end, towards a 'new tenderness' where Ismène has expunged her memory to broach freedom, sudden horrors push us up. She runs to the back of the stage and lashes dry ice at the surface of the water, calling up a mire of rage with spitting and gurgling clouds forming a spectral array of temporal confusion. The audience are now prostrate before the consumed Greek. Looking then into camera with face projected on the ghostly lake of her stage, Pousseur pulls the audience to a vaporous conclusion, suggestively serene in death but haunted yet still by the horrors of her like.

Laurels for this astonishing show should be shared amongst actor, director and composer (whose peerless ear for detail, drama, and dynamic are as honed here as ever). Special honours should go to Pousseur though, who was indivisible from the personage of Ismène all evening. This was helped no doubt by the fully resolved and effective decision to cast her naked, bereft to her memories. In her precise but enflamed singing, her meticulous control of emotional crescendo and contour, and her bold personification of the character, Pousseur demonstrated once again her matchless ability to inhabit text, music, and action with fluid and daring motions of expression and technique.

By Stephen Graham


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