The Royal Opera House chose sombre works for its New Dark Age evening: two contemporary chamber pieces, the first a monodrama about the poet Martin Carter, incarcerated in 1950s British Guyana, the other an amalgam of existing music reflecting on the Covid world we now live in. Both would have worked well in the smaller ROH Linbury Studio. They were left somewhat overwhelmed in the main auditorium, despite high-quality music-making and sharp stagings (designer Vicki Mortimer, lighting by Adam Silverman).
Hannah Kendall’s The Knife of Dawn (2016), to a libretto by Tessa McWatt, directed by Ola Ince, needs a more intimate space to draw us into its quiet, troubling intensity. The composer has a gift for making subtle timbres from modest resources – here a harp, whispered and glassy, at its highest register, with imaginative writing for string trio (conductor Jonathon Heyward). Baritone Peter Braithwaite gave a committed performance as the poet. Offstage female voices acted as ghostly memories that haunt the poet and add aural richness.
The American composer Missy Mazzoli wrote her Vespers for a New Dark Age in 2014, some of which is included in a 10-part meditation that takes its name, directed by Katie Mitchell (conductor Natalie Murray Beale). Elegiac choral pieces by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir and songs including the lovely Heal You, by the British composer Anna Meredith, offered sonic variety. All was beautifully sung by sopranos Nadine Benjamin and Anna Dennis and the mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, who also featured in Grant Gee’s accompanying video: overlaid, slow-motion images of lockdown life. Some will have found this a telling encapsulation of pandemic reality. Others, myself included, longed to be carried to a different horizon.
High praise to City Music Foundation artists Emily Sun, violin, Joseph Shiner, clarinet, Ariana Kashefi, cello, and Alexander Soares, piano, who played Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time in St Paul’s Cathedral. Usually this music, searing and poetic, burns its way into our consciousness. Here, beneath the building’s giant dome, the sound multiplying and coming back to greet itself, it felt indeed timeless.
Star ratings (out of five)
New Dark Age ★★★
Quartet for the End of Time ★★★★