“I hope you’re not too shocked, and I hope you don’t run out!” jokes Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, before the lights go out and his operatic monodrama, Eight Songs for a Mad King, begins.
I do feel shocked, but only because this distinguished English composer has made the journey to the Rose Theatre in Kingston to introduce his work to an audience of just sixty people. It’s a privilege, especially given the performance is a collaboration between two relatively unknown graduate companies – Helios Chamber Opera and Melos Sinfonia orchestra.
Director Ella Marchment and conductor Oliver Zeffman first joined forces back in 2013, and have since stood out for noticeably steering away from the “classics”. Their first show was a trilogy of new compositions which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, and this July they brought Rachmaninoff’s rarely-performed opera Aleko to St John’s Smith Square.
Tonight’s show is a double bill: William Walton’s Façade, followed by the renowned Eight Songs for a Mad King. The pairing is unusual, yet well chosen. Both musical dramas were written by Englishmen in the 20th century, and it’s good timing for the Walton, as the composer was thrust into the limelight at this summer’s BBC Proms. But what really connects these two works is their hallucinatory madness.
The ‘entertainment Façade’ is a collection of abstract poems written by British poet Edith Sitwell, set to music by Walton in 1922. Their subjects are nonsensical, rather like adult versions of the Dr. Seuss rhymes, with titles like ‘Clown’s Houses’, ‘Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone’, and ‘When Sir Beelzebub’.
Director Ella Marchment embraces the lunacy of these poems by setting the production in a psychiatric ward for WWI soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The patients shuffle around in their hospital robes, and there’s a jarring conflict between the joyful silliness of the poems and the evident malaise of these shell-shocked war heros. But it’s a useful juxtaposition, as it roots the poems in a context and helps justify their disjointed subject matters.
Singers Charmian Bedford and Danny Standing reel impressively through the tongue twisters with crystal clear diction. Bedford practically sings the words, highlighting their natural rhythms with her melodic voice, with Standing adding to that a dry humour. The accompaniment is scored for flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, cello and percussion, which bubbles energetically underneath thanks to talented musicians from the Melos Sinfonia.
Things move from mad to madder, with Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. At the height of his delusion, King George III would attempt to teach birds to sing using a miniature mechanical organ that played eight tunes. These inspired the opera, which traces with eight songs the deterioration of the monarch’s mental health. “The first performance was fascinating”, Maxwell Davies tells us in his introduction. “Half were shouting ‘Bravo!’ while the others cried ‘Rubbish! Shut up!’”
It’s such a unique experience, it seems irrelevant whether or not you enjoy yourself. Maxwell Davies captures with unsettling accuracy what madness might sound like, and his writing pushes the singer’s voice through four octaves and a disturbing range of extended techniques. Being in such intimate proximity of a man going mad verges on frightening.
Baritone and Royal Academy graduate Samuel Pantcheff plays the King, frolicking among the birds (gone are the hospital gowns – now the musicians are covered with feathers). While he perhaps falls short of the maximum force with which this music could be delivered, his performance is a remarkable achievement for a young singer: this music is tough. (Try and see it written on paper if you get a chance – the notes swirl across the page, sometimes cascading down in the shape of a birdcage. It’s a work of art.) He acts with confidence, smiling like a happy child, eyes wide as saucers, then wails as he loses control and becomes panicked by his own confusion. ‘I am not ill! I am nervous!’ he shouts. A screen above the stage flashes with the King’s hallucinations (images designed with flair by Benjamin Fox and Holly Pigott).
The whole evening is slick, and provocative. As I watch poor King George wallowing in his own confusion I start to question my own sanity. At one point my finger twitches involuntarily, and I decide that I too have lost my marbles.
Photos: Matilda Hill-Jenkins