It began with a spoiler from a lady sitting behind, a warning that proceedings begin with 30 seconds of very loud noise. It is true. A thundering looped bass sample roars from the surrounding speakers, a disconcerting effect that reappears several times to augment the otherwise continual underlay of electronica. Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, the strings of Reykjavík Sinfonia fight to be heard throughout this music-theatre piece – to call it ‘opera’ is stretching it, in what is basically a live concept-album based on Iain Banks’s book ‘The Wasp Factory’.
Commissioned for the recent Bregenz Festival in Austria, it has been written and directed by Ben Frost, an Australian composer/producer who has lived in Iceland since 2005. His darkly-lit, atmospheric production takes place on an impressive set by Mirella Weingarten – a huge, articulated sheet of glass covered in soil, which slowly tilts towards the audience until, almost upright at the end, the performers need clip themselves on to this back-lit gleaming sheet from which the soil has slid away.
The cast is Liselot De Wilde, Jördis Richter and Mariam Wallentin, who are Belgian, German and Swedish, respectively. These female singer-performers resemble future-gothic characters from ‘Mad Max’ as they lithely cavort on the precariously shifting stage, mic’ed up, singing without a conductor and all sounding like Björk – perhaps channelling Frost’s new homeland.
Banks’s imaginative novel is a carefully paced masterpiece of the modern gothic. Here, unfortunately, it has been put through the mill and what emerges is a straight book-reading set to loud music and lively choreography. With the novel’s male characters shared between three female singers, there is no dramatic tension – Frost’s conception is that everything is in the imagination of the violently disturbed Frank, even the imminent return of Eric, his bother who has escaped from a mental asylum. Frank’s gender otherness, a complex theme in the novel, is also explored. However, one need not worry about that, because the libretto (shaped faithfully by David Pountney from the novel) is rendered incomprehensible by the sonic assault and the overuse of ensemble singing.
Musically, aside from the sporadic thunder and dark burbling of a recorded contrabassoon, there is little of interest – a limited harmonic palette invests both the vapid wallpaper minimalism of the quiet strings and the repetitive vocal phrasing – both swamped by unsparing electronica. Jonathan Lennie