The Knife: Tomorrow, in a year

Hotel Pro Forma

The Barbican, 29 July 2010 2.5 stars

Tomorrow, in a yearThe Danish interdisciplinary performance group Hotel Pro Forma's collaboration with the Swedish electronic duo The Knife on the latter's 'electronic opera' Tomorrow, in a year, has received widespread acclaim since its September 2009 premiere, though with the exception of some thumping good music and mesmerising dance I struggle to see why.

Formed out of four awkwardly soldered parts, the work is based around the life and thought of Charles Darwin, specifically, as follows: Darwin's journey on The Beagle and the environmental observations he made; the death of his young daughter Annie, and the notion of complex organisms made of many smaller, interdependent parts; the publication and ideas of On the Origin of the Species; and, finally, the interrelationships and interconnectivity of all things, with humanity's place in the web of life paramount. The musical design matches that of the dramatic, with (wonderfully) screeching, whacking smacks of buzz drones and Noise electronica in stunning slow cascades giving way to Chris Watson-esque field recordings of the Amazon (interleaved with artificial manipulations and recorded vocal ululation), these in turn making way for an eclectic song based suite, before the final, winsome, trio, duet, and solo valedictions.

Not that the thematic subdivisions of the text are necessarily evident, or, more significantly, dramatically important, in the show. Blitzed by the impressive neon light show, the effective movements of the set, and the sloganeering texts flashing up here and there (co-direction and set design by Ralf Richardt Strø bech, co-direction Kirsten Dehlholm), the audience could be forgiven for thinking they had witnessed something other than pure spectacle. The Knife, happily proclaiming ignorance of opera in the notes, attempt to shoehorn their forms and their style into something resembling a coherent theatrical text, without averring much on how this might be done. Yes, the sheer onslaught of the opening electro-orgasms made for an erotic, charged opening, and yes, the brazen House beats and the almost-Pet Shop Boys strains of the later music intimated something musically thrilling, but theatrical presentations, in contradistinction to concerts, require something more fluent and compelling in the way of dramatic form than was on display here. I was never really sure, for any substantial period of the show, that it really knew what it was trying to say, or how it was going to say it.

The inclusion of a dramatic mezzo, a concession to the apparent operatic genre, never convinced, even if Kristina Wahlin was by far and away the strongest of the three singers, both technically and expressively. The writing for her voice was strangled by an ignorance of line; too often she had to repeat small rhythmic cells, or simply intone ostentatiously on single notes. Lest you protest that such gestures can feed dramatic gold, let me reassure any one reading, this was certainly no Neither. Of the other two singers, Swedish singer-songwriter Jonathan Johansson was the stronger, though he had to struggle with some embarrassing, Nathan Barley-level text; 'examine, examine, examine, frame of mind, frame of mind', indeed (Philip Glass on South Park came to mind more than once). Johansson's voice has a lovely tender, wispy quality, though his rather uncomfortable way of thinning intonation at the end of phrases and when singing in his falsetto register diminished the strength of his performance.

Lærke Winther, billed as singer/actor, was I'm sorry to say a pretty dismal singer, though her recitation of Darwinian texts was fine. Winther's thin and projection-weak voice struggled even through the heavy duty amplification all singers were subject to (this worked fine generally, and indeed was necessary given the fantastically loud sound design of the musical playback). Her duet with Wahlin towards the close exposed the already questionable idea of employing three very different voice types as the folly that it was.

I mentioned dance earlier. Present throughout the show, the six dancers interleaved an uncanny physical figuration of the libretto's ideas as a weave through the show's many singings and posings. Shadowing dance as they struggled into movement from various degrees of stasis, the Sasha Waltz-esque sculptural undancers provided some of the only emotionally engaging dramatic thinking through of the ideas apparently at the heart of the piece. As talk of 'Variation of Birds' was heard, robotic-avian disquisitions firmed the human into an interstices that then patterned, in various emphases, throughout the rest of the show.

Much talk has been spent about this work perhaps showing the way for a genuinely contemporary opera. Yet this fails to understand a truth, quite apart (but perhaps intimately linked to it) from the work's specific dramatic failure; Tomorrow, in a year was borne of electro-becoming-opera, not the other way around. How could the future of any genre be found in such a flagrant logical jumble?

By Stephen Graham

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