Opera; libretto by Blake Morrison (after the novella by Jules Verne)
Duration: 2 hours
12 soloists (2 sopranos, 2 mezzos, 2 counter tenors, 2 tenors, 2 baritones, 2 bass baritones); Chorus (SATB); Orchestra: 2 (2), 2 (oboe d’amore, cor anglais), 1 + bass-cl, 1 + contra; 4. flugelhorn.2 + bass.0; harp; electric keyboard, Percussion (3 players) (see Percussion Notes below for details); Strings: minimum 18.104.22.168.3 (1 amplified)
First performance: English National Opera, London, June 15th, 1998.
Programme notes by Gavin Bryars
Doctor Ox’s Experiment
Opera, libretto by Blake Morrison (after the novella by Jules Verne)
Duration: 2 hours
12 soloists (2 sopranos, 2 mezzos, 2 counter tenors, 2 tenors, 2 baritones, 2 bass baritones)
Orchestra: 2 (2), 2 (oboe d’amore, cor anglais),1 + bass-cl, 1 + contra; 4. flugelhorn.2 + bass.0; harp; electric keyboard, Percussion (3 players) (see Percussion Notes below for details); Strings: minimum 22.214.171.124.3 (1 amplified)
First performance: English National Opera, London, June 15th, 1998.
The Genesis of the opera
When Robert Wilson asked me to work with him on an operatic version of Euripides’ Medea in 1981, I had written nothing for orchestra, nothing for the human voice and nothing for the stage. Although I knew some operas in an academic sense, it was a genre which did not impinge on composers from what was called “the experimental tradition”. Indeed the only opera that I had seen live by that time was Gunther Schuller’s The Visitation which I saw when I was working with John Cage in Illinois in 1968. I did, additionally, see a production of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera during a workshop period about halfway through the 10 months that it took me to write my first opera. Admittedly I looked to certain models during the course of the composition both for orchestra with voice and for dramatic music but essentially I learned about opera by writing one.
Although the planned first performance of Medea in 1982 at La Fenice was cancelled the period working on the opera in Lyon and Paris in 1984 when it was eventually produced was immensely stimulating and satisfying. As I was also one of the five composers for Bob Wilson’s abortive CIVIL WarS operatic project, during this period I found myself working with some very fine singers – in Medea Yvonne Kenny sang the title role and a youthful François Le Roux was the Messenger; and in the sketch rehearsals for CIVIL WarS I was involved with people like Donald McIntyre, Hildegard Behrens and, briefly, Jessye Norman. It was a long way from the composer/performer ensembles of English experimental music.
Towards the end of the performances of Medea in France, which were very successful, I felt that I wanted to write more operas and immediately came up with three subjects. These were Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, Thomas de Quincey’s The Last Days of Immanuel Kant, and Jules Verne’s Doctor Ox’s Experiment. Although I drafted an outline of the dramatic treatment for the Flaubert piece, the first music that I wrote in relation to these possible operas was a piece for solo jazz bass and chamber orchestra called By the Vaar, which was commissioned by the Camden Jazz Festival for the great American bassist Charlie Haden. The “Vaar” is the name of the river in the Verne story and, apart from the piece’s autonomous existence, I saw this as a sketch – a kind of backdrop to future music – for the scene by the river where the two lovers Frantz and Suzel pass the day in an apparently innocuous fashion with the sort of non-activity which characterises the town’s ethos. This scene comes from the chapter in the original story which had struck me first as crying out for some kind of dramatic treatment employing the sort of expanded time that I had encountered in the work of Bob Wilson. When the opportunity arose for an Arts Council tour with my ensemble in 1988 I planned to write the last scene of the Kant opera but the tenor – either Heinz Zednik or Kenneth Riegel – who I wanted to sing the piece, both of whom wanted to do it, were not available at that time. So instead I decided to move in a different direction and write a work for soprano and ensemble which would involve an overview of the Ox story but viewed from a point when the story had ended – effectively an epilogue to the whole narrative. I worked with Blake Morrison for the first time on this project and the resulting work, Doctor Ox’s Experiment (Epilogue), was given 6 performances in this country and 2 in France by Sarah Leonard and my ensemble. Some elements from this epilogue and from By the Vaar appear in the opera itself.
I owe a great deal to Dennis Marks who expressed interest in a film version of the work when he was at the BBC and who, when he moved to English National Opera, had the courage to commission the work. I cannot forget too that it was he who suggested that I might consider contacting Atom Egoyan about directing it. I had seen Atom’s film ‘Exotica’ and I had been struck by many aspects of the film which made believe that he would be ideal as director of the opera, aspects which were reinforced by his most recent film ‘The Sweet Hereafter’. I enjoyed his very subtle awareness of the relationship between music and sound design and of the use of music itself. I was struck by the very clever way in which the narrative was slowly revealed and how the viewer’s early assumptions were undermined by new possibilities in the story. I was aware that he had successfully directed his first opera in Canada but it struck me too that his way of working in film – with his own ensemble in the manner of, say, the early Orson Welles – is my own preferred way of working in music and is also similar to the way that an opera company like ENO operates.
That the opera now exists is thanks to Dennis’s encouragement and vision, to the tenacity of my manager Jane Quinn and to the careful supervision of my editor Sandy Brown.
For many years I have been interested in the work of Jules Verne.
I have used texts from Verne for vocal works and taken inspiration from his imagery for other pieces over the last few years. For example I have used three different texts from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for quite different vocal works: for a section of Effarene (for mezzo-soprano, 2 pianos and 6 percussion) in 1984, for The Black River (for soprano and organ) in 1990 and for The White Lodge (for mezzo-soprano and electronics) in 1991. Similarly his story The Green Ray, especially certain key visual elements, was the inspiration for my saxophone concerto written in 1991, and entitled The Green Ray.
It is easy to be complacent about Verne and about his position in literature. He is often, for example, thought of as merely the father of science fiction, just as Poe was the ‘father’ of the detective story. But his work is elusive and can be viewed from many perspectives. Certainly French writers, such as Roussel and Queneau, revere his work for the resonance of its word play, but also for its ambiguity and for the existence of many levels of significance. In the recent past a number of English authors, such as Andrew Martin and William Butcher, have written about Verne in a similar spirit. His work has always been important too for those associated with the Collège de ‘Pataphysique and there are several remarkable discussions of Verne’s Voyages Imaginaires from a highly original perspective in the publications of the Collège. There is one stunning analysis of his Voyages Extraordinaires which demonstrates that each one deals with an obsession for a single direction: travelling north, travelling up a meridian, travelling from the earth’s surface downwards, travelling upwards into space and so on.
In addition to the obvious “scientific” aspect of Verne there are many other aspects which are fascinating. For example, as a person Verne was a solidly bourgeois, conservative middle class town counsellor yet in his works we find him supporting other, quite extreme, political positions – anti-colonialism, a sympathy for anarchism. Similarly there is his love of wordplay which appears not only as decoration or wit but rather as a key element in the narrative, something which Roussel was to take to extraordinary limits in his writing where wordplay becomes the generative force for the whole work. At times, in fact, Verne’s science could be incredibly factual simply moving one or two steps forward in time, or sideways in geographical location by drawing out the implications of what was already present, or at least latent.
Doctor Ox’s Experiment (musical treatment)
I had come across the novella Dr Ox’s Experiment in the library of Lord Berners in the late 1970’s when I was working on his biography, a project which I had to give up once work started on Medea and which has recently been completed by Mark Amery. Berners’ copy was an English first edition that he had been given while at prep school towards the end of the last century. Doctor Ox’s Experiment is an apparently straightforward narrative which could be seen to have the concept of ‘tempo’, relative pace and the play between musical time and chronological time as a structuring device. Its chief protagonist, Ox, is in the anarchist tradition of Verne’s heroes like Captain Nemo or Robur the Conqueror, but at the same time displays the single-mindedness of, say, Captain Hatteras (the explorer trying to reach the North Pole who, even in his terminal madness, sought only to walk to the North). In the book Ox himself is a rather shadowy figure and we have chosen to develop his character more substantially with these considerations in mind.
In transforming the story into material for an opera there were many things which needed developing, especially in terms of the characters in the story. Verne is chiefly interested in the town and the ensemble of people within it, who are strikingly uniform. He tells us very little about Ox and his assistant Ygène and both Blake and I felt that they needed to become real characters – Ox is, after all, the title role. There were others who are background figures in the story, Aunt Hermance for example, who we also wanted to give more substance and even to give her some key material.
I also made decisions about orchestration, vocal types, choral disposition in order to clarify what could become otherwise a confusing ensemble piece. I decided that I would associate vocal types with types of characters so that the adult townsfolk, most of whom are male, generally have low voices to reflect their inherent gravity and slowness of demeanour. The lovers, on the other hand are high voices (2 counter-tenors and two high sopranos – we decided to add mirror images of Verne’s solitary pair of lovers) reflecting both their youth and innocence. As Ox is clearly from another place and even dimension I wanted his voice to be unlike any of those in the town and at one stage, before I started writing the music, I discussed with Tom Waits the idea of his taking this part. In the event I made Ox a high, agile lyric tenor and Ygène the baritone equivalent and neither of these would be found, in normal circumstances, among the inhabitants of Quiquendone.
Two examples may serve to show how this may be used to clarify the dramatic situation. In the second scene of the opera, after Ox’s arrival in the town, to show 3 family groups in their everyday life I let the chorus dissolve into an ensemble of 13 solo voices showing the 3 different levels of tessitura as the voices move from fathers to mothers to youthful offspring. For the chorus in scene 6 where we have workers singing quickly and the townsfolk moving at their usual pace I give the slow music to the female voices and the fast music to the men, the inversion of what would have been the case earlier but showing that the transformation is underway.
I also made decisions about orchestration which would clarify further these distinctions. The orchestra as a whole is not a large one and, apart from the electric keyboard and extensive percussion, is no bigger than an orchestra from the early classical period. There are, however, some instruments which are chosen for very specific reasons. In the case of the oboe, an instrument which I normally dislike, both players double on other instruments: one on the cor anglais the other on the oboe d’amore. As I wanted the scenes with the lovers to have something of the purity of early music they tend to be accompanied with relatively light orchestral textures and so an åold’ instrument, the oboe d’amore, can be used for obligato material. The amplified jazz bass is an obligato instrument too, for the love scene, and perhaps an unlikely one but, given the nature of the town, quite apt. This part involves a certain amount of improvisation during the lovers’ scene, but when it returns in the epilogue although still amplified it no longer improvises. In addition I use a flugelhorn rather than the trumpet in the brass section for its mellower, less assertive character. There is also a major part for the solo bass clarinet.
This comes about for a number of reasons. In the first place I have a very fine bass clarinettist in my ensemble and I had included this as a solo instrument in the concert Epilogue and to double the solo bass in By the Vaar, adding resonance and sustaining qualities to the legato singing pizzicato of Charlie Haden’s bass (and mine in the Epilogue). However, there are both musical and Vernian reasons for the instrument’s prominence in the opera. The major incident which demonstrates the extent of the disruption to the town’s life, at the end of the first act, comes at a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and the section which Verne refers to in his narrative is in Act 4 of that opera. At the beginning of Meyerbeer’s next act he writes an extended and quite famous solo for the bass clarinet, which then accompanies the ensuing aria. Meyerbeer was only able to compose this solo because Adolphe Sax had developed the instrument’s mechanism beyond its earlier rudimentary state. Sax, of course, came from Belgium, the country where Verne had located with extraordinary geographical precision, although now appearing on no map, the town of Quiquendone.
The climactic disorder towards the end of the first act which occurs with the accelerated and dislocated performance of Les Huguenots, where the townsfolk are drawn into the opera itself, leads to the fastest tempo in the whole work. This is mirrored in the second act where an explosion resulting from Ox’s inattention and his struggle with Ygène leads to the loudest dynamics. As part of the explosion, as the sound decays the strings emerge as 24 solo instruments, like debris fluttering to the ground in the aftermath. In each act the climax is followed by an aria for Aunt Hermance, a shadowy figure who, as chaperone for the lovers is the personification of the town’s character, but who can also be transformed, like litmus paper in a chemical experiment, to signal the move to a new state. At the end, however, her previous charge Suzel at least has achieved something close to self-knowledge and even enlightenment. In her epilogue she is supported by both the jazz bass playing in the low and middle register and by the bass clarinet playing altissimo.
Doctor Ox’s Experiment is dedicated to my mother, who was also present at the last performance of Medea in Paris.
Programme notes by Blake Morrison
Jules Verne, Gavin Bryars and me.
An English translation of Jules Verne’s novella Dr Ox’s Experiment was first published in London in 1888. In France, the book had appeared over a decade earlier, in 1874, immediately after the most famous of all his novels, Around the World in Eighty Days. Verne’s work-rate being prodigious, and the text of Dr Ox running to only a little over 100 pages, it’s likely he bashed it out
very quickly. Neither critics nor book-buyers seem to have noticed it much: there are so many other Verne novels to choose from, after all – Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, The Green Ray and Five Weeks in a Balloon among others, several of them made famous by film versions. Dr Ox’s Experiment remains one of his least-known works.
Certainly I’d never heard of the book when, in May 1988, exactly a hundred years after its publication here, Gavin Bryars wrote to me with the idea of turning it into an opera. At that point, not being well up in contemporary classical music, I hadn’t heard of Gavin Bryars either, but I liked the sound of him – and when I heard his music I liked the sound of that, too. We met in a restaurant near Chelsea Bridge, close to the new Observer building where I worked as a literary editor. I’d recently published a book of poems, The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, and it was that which had prompted Gavin to propose a collaboration. Over lunch we discovered we had things in common – Yorkshire childhoods, bibliomania, an interest in sport – and could get along. By the time coffee was served, we had shaken hands on the project.
I had never written a libretto, but I could see at once why Gavin believed Dr Ox could work as an opera. The plot is devastatingly simple: the mysterious Ox, along with his assistant Ygene (Ox + Ygene), offers to instal gas lighting in the sleepy Flanders town of Quiquendone, while secretly planning to pump the gas about the town and to observe its effect on the inert inhabitants; chaos ensues.
The neatness of the storyline; the potential for fast and slow tempo; the presence of an opera within an opera (Oxís great breakthrough with his experiment comes during a performance of Meyerbeerís Les Huguenots at the town theatre); the play of wit and whimsy on the surface, while deeper themes (morality and scientific progress) lurk below; and, most important, the sense of fantasy and magic – all this naturally seemed to lend itself to opera.
(Indeed, we later discovered that Dr Oxís Experiment
had previously been adapted by Offenbach, in 1877, though Verne disliked his version – not lively enough – and audiences evidently felt the same: despite Offenbach’s popularity, it closed after a short run.)
Gavin’s agent had warned that it was “unlikely that the opera would be produced before 1990”, something of an under-estimate as it turned out. And the summer of 1988 was a busy one for me, since as well as a day job at the Observer I had a two-month old baby in the house and 120 novels to read for the Booker Prize. I was eager to make a start, nevertheless, and by the autumn we had produced a concert-piece, in effect an “epilogue” to the novella, for one of the principal females, Suzel.
In November 1988, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the soprano Sarah Leonard sang the part, and Gavin played the piece with his Ensemble. The reviews were good, and one critic even suggested, as weíd hoped, that someone should have the courage to commission a full-scale opera.
A long silence followed. Gavin was busy with other works – including a new version (with Tom Waits) of his piece Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a besteller in 1993. I too had other things to work on, including an abortive musical version, with the composer Howard Goodall, of Wuthering Heights (there was some interest, at first, but once Cliff Richard announced his intention to play Heathcliff, in a rival version, the phone stopped ringing).
Years passed. The Eighties became the Nineties. But Dr Ox didn’t fizzle out. Dennis Marks had shown some interest in the project while working at the BBC. And when he arrived at the ENO, he duly commissioned us to produce the opera for the Coliseum.
If there’s a simple rule for how librettists and composers should collaborate, we didn’t discover it. Gavin’s home is in the country near Leicester, mine is in London, and though we met many times during the ten years of Dr Ox’s evolution, most of the communing was done by fax and phone.
We advanced by trial and error, with Gavin sometimes chucking out words of mine he knew wouldn’t fit and sometimes asking me to write new ones for scenes that proved dramatically or musically richer than we’d anticipated.
David Pountney gave us much useful advice, especially with the dramatic structure of the piece, and Dennis Marks lent steadfast support. But it was never easy to predict what would or wouldn’t work musically. For Gavin, the lyrical high point of one section came with the phrase “with the gasworks”.
It was chastening for me to discover that banal words can sometimes inspire beautiful music. Not that I set out to create banality, but some of Verne’s scenes – a long, nitpicking council meeting, for example – are unavoidably prosaic, and that’s part of their comedy.
Other scenes, notably that in which the young lovers, Frantz and Suzel, pursue their slow courtship by the River Vaar, required a more elevated diction, with an erotic subtext.
I used a good deal of rhyme, both with the gentler, more romantic scenes and for the farcical ones. I also tried to contrast two kinds of belief system, tradition on the one hand, science on the other: each has a sweet logic which, in extremis, turns into nonsense. Just as there are two tempos in Doctor Ox, so there are several linguistic registers.
Poets are used to working alone, their only struggle with themselves. A librettist has responsibilities to others – composer, director, choreographer, orchestra, cast – and this means being willing to make cuts and changes to the text, for the greater good of the whole. Far from feeling compromised by this process, I loved the companionship (a welcome break from the isolation of my basement) and the discipline which collaboration imposed.
I’d thought of the libretto as a dramatic poem, but it isn’t: it may exist on the page, but it only comes into being when sung. However clear the singing, some words will usually be lost, a reality the librettist doesn’t relish but has to accept. Even when every word is heard, the attention of the audience may be elswhere, with the gestures of the performers, or the scenery, or the orchestra. Itís in the nature of opera for words to count for less than they do in poetry. But that doesn’t mean working any less hard at them.
In the case of Dr Ox’s Experiment, dialogue had to be written that doesn’t exist in Verne’s text. The descriptive passages of Quiquendone had to be replaced by a chorus of townsfolk. Instead of being psychologically analysed by their novelist-creator, the characters had to be seen (and heard) to interact. Debates became duets. Introspection became song. Above all, the personalities of Ox and Ygene – and the dynamics of a master-slave relationship – were fleshed out.
Gavin and I didn’t agree in every detail about the tone and shape of the opera, but there were no serious rifts, let alone slanging matches. One principle uniting us was a wish to honour the spirit of Verne’s novella and the questions it raises about scientific and political advance.
At the heart of the story is a battle between the impetuous Ox, who hates the traditionalism and stupor of Quiquendone, and the sceptical Ygene, who comes to believe the townsfolk are better off as they are, without the benefits of his masterís invention.
Ox sees himself as a benefactor. The gift he brings isn’t just gas but light, speed, music, democracy, modernity,
self-fulfilment. To Ygene, the gift is a poisoned chalice. It may make the people less repressed, but it also makes them unhappy – and distorts the ancient rhythms of the town.
“Are virtue, courage, talent, wit, imagination – are all these qualities or faculties only a question of oxygen?” Ox believes they are; Ygene disagrees. Theirs is a debate which goes on to this day: are we masters of our own personalities and destinies, or are they determined by factors (genes, chemicals) beyond our control?
Operas are more famous for exploring passions than ideas, but much of the passion of Dr Ox comes from its ideas and we wanted the piece to reflect this.
Though the story of Ox’s gas experiment is a fantasy, at least one American expert, Hubertus Strughold of the USAF Aerospace Medical Center, has assessed its scientific plausibility. He suggests that Verne may well have been familar with the pioneer studies of the French physiologist Paul Bert, who observed the behaviour of animals when exposed to pure oxygen under a barometric pressure of several atmospheres (a state of extreme excitation was followed by convulsions, then death). He also makes comparisons with high-altitude sickness, and notes that ozone, rather than oxygen, does induce some of the effects Verne attributes to his oxygen-like gas. That a twentieth-century scientist should give serious attention to Verne’s science fiction is a mark of how far ahead he was of his time.
Politically, too, the story of Dr Ox seems pertinent, and even prophetic: when the Quiquendonians, “liberated” by Ox, become warlike and nationalistic it’s hard not to be reminded what has happened in Eastern Europe since 1989.
Verne was interested in music as well as science and politics, and it’s no coincidence that Ox’s gas experiment takes place at the town opera-house.
(No doubt Verne would have known that the first gaslights on stage in Britain were introduced at the English Opera House, at the Lyceum on the Strand, in 1817.) Having written songs and several libretti early in his career, he was regular opera-goer both when visiting Paris and at home in Amiens, and he thought of music as a wonderful stimulant (just like oxygen). Among his favourite composers were Wagner, Mozart, Gounod, Berlioz, Rossini, Verdi, Beethoven and Haydn. Several of his fictions have plots involving music, including the novel Propellor Island and the extraordinary short story “Mr Ray Sharp and Miss Me Flat”. All in all, turning one of his books into an opera seems a natural step.
In Quiquendone, where young couples are engaged at least 10 years before marriage, nothing happens quickly. So perhaps it is appropriate that it has taken a decade for the opera of Dr Ox’s Experiment to reach the stage. Verne would have seen the justice of that. And being a man who liked to pun, he would have loved the idea of Ox and Ygene being directed by someone called Atom.
Doctor Ox’s Experiment reviewed in the Sunday Times by Paul Driver
The two-act opera that Gavin Bryars and poet Blake Morrison have adapted from Jules Verne’s novella Une fantaisie du Docteur Ox is the first full-scale new work to be premiered at either of the London houses in several years. Its gestation has been long and its eventual production by English National Opera at the Coliseum was deferred from last season to last Monday, but the upshot is something of a triumph. Doctor Ox’s Experiment is a real, singable, musically self-justifying opera, with many of the medium’s traditional strengths, if always at a deceptive angle to tradition. It is a work of pungent originality that is never “experimentalist” in the way of earlier Bryars works, but makes a surprisingly close approach to mainstream repertoire.
Texts and imagery from Verne have informed various pieces (including a saxophone concerto) by Bryars, whose sources are as diverse as they are arcane. The story of Dr Ox is one of Verne’s least known but exists in a beautifully witty (unattributed) Victorian translation. Set in the little Flemish town of Quiquendone, whose trade is “the manufacture of whipped creams and barley sugar on a large scale”, a place where nothing has ever happened, everything runs smooth and slow, municipal decisions are infinitely deferred, and courtships last a decade if a day, Verne’s satire imagines a situation in which such civic tranquillity is insidiously undermined.
The anarchic outsider Dr Ox, who uses people in his experiments as other scientists use rats, offers to modernise the town, free of charge, with gas-lighting. But, helped by Ygène (Riccardo Simonetti), he instead floods it with oxygen (Ox-Ygène), looking gleefully on as the Quiquendonians become uncontrollably excited, disrupt a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, declare war on a neighbouring town over a 700-year old dispute about a cow, and seem to prove his point that human qualities are only a matter of oxygen levels, “mere atoms, like everything else”.
The tale’s operatic potential, of which the Meyerbeer is an emblem, has to do with its compactness as a fable, its graphic contrasts, its chorus-like involvement of townsfolk, but its appeal to Bryars may also lie in the way that hyper-ventilated Quiquendone sinks into catastrophe as imperceptibly as the great liner in his tape and ensemble piece The Sinking of the Titanic (1969-97) is engulfed by the ocean (to a gurgling of hymn-tunes). And it is difficult not to see an invitation to a composer noted for lugubrious tempi in Verne’s evocation of Quiquendone’s opera theatre, where no more than two acts of an opera were ever got through in an evening, and “composers would never have recognised their own works, so entirely changed were the ‘movements’ of the music”.
Such sea-change is at the heart of Bryars’ idiom. Though his music is all too plainly built from tonal chords, they always sound subtly unfamiliar as though reverberating under water, and the rhythmic repetitions of his admittedly gentle minimalist manner rarely break free from a sort of sea-swell engulfing the texture. The duos, trios and other standard forms abundant in this score – there is a fully-fledged if dreamily lethargic love-duet, with catchy jazz obbligato for double bass (Bryars’ own instrument); a sonorous “council chamber” trio for low male voices; a lovers’ high-voice ensemble parodying early music to an accompaniment of glittering harmonics – all come touched with the dead-pan irony that is Bryars’ peculiar note and apt enough here; while the choruses have a suspended, other-worldly quality right for the phlegmatic Flemings.
In a sense, Bryars has his operatic cake and regurgitates it. His gambits work on the stage even as their element of glacial stylisation threatens to sink the whole dramatic enterprise. His vocal lines are shapely and strong, his orchestral writing often lyrical too, but despite some parallels, this is not the world of Verdi, Janacek, Britten; and though the first act rises to a traditional operatic climax, it is achieved by throwing “opera” – in the form of the riotous audience behaviour at Les Huguenots, complete with Meyerbeer quotation – back in the audience’s face. In this production by Canadian film-director Atom Egoyan the spotlight that I took to signify the oxygen flow is trained on us at the start of the interval.
We return, suitably stimulated, to find the Flemings inflamed by erotic passion and their world turned upside down. Whereas the earlier scenes were done with softly swaying choreography and characters who, having emerged from the opening wedding-cake tableau, moved in great white crinolines (designed by Sandy Powell) like chess pieces across the stage, now the people are half-stripped and frantically coupling, enmeshed in the wires of a newly automated whipped cream industry. The second act, at 40 minutes, is half the length of the first for obvious reasons, and the macro-contrasts are well expressed in a production, attractively designed by Michael Levine, somewhat darkly lit by Rick Fisher, that makes the most of such simple means as rope, ladders and falling glitter. Lighting gear nicely serves as the mad scientist’s apparatus. There are no mandatory fascists in leather coats, no Mengeles or Husseins to underscore any allegory.
Only the concluding scene, which diverges from the novella and possibly the libretto (it depends on the meaning of a final “Ah!”), moves in the direction of generic modern opera production. One of the love-duettists, Frantz (well taken by countertenor David James) appears to have been killed in the gas explosion (rather muffled in this staging) that puts paid to Ox’s scheme; and the other, Suzel (the splendid Valdine Anderson), sings what is in effect a Liebestod over him. Though inertia returns to Quiquendone, in the operatic version life is never going to be the same: we are presented with a landscape of bleak recrimination tinged by a hope of renewal. In the story no one dies, everything is as before, and though the staged denouement has a poetic power, part of me wished that the opera, like the satire, might simply end with a bang and a laugh. The cast, led by clarion tenor Bonaventura Bottone, diabolical as Ox, is altogether fine, though verbal clarity comes and goes in curious phases. James Holmes conducts impressively.
© Paul Driver 1998
Instruments needed in percussion section
Doctor Ox’s Experiment (1997)
marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, tubular bells, cencerros, bass drum, tam-tam, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, mark-tree, Chinese bell-tree, wind-machine, timpani (4 or 5 drums)