ETO at the Holy Trinity Church, Prince Consort Road, London
English Touring Opera’s normal autumn fare of Handel (Flavio and Xerxes) is this year accompanied by a variety of other dishes, ranging from Purcell’s Fairy Queen to several more unusual projects, among which the piquancy of Gesualdo’s sacred and secular music stands out.
Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri is a set of seven cantatas meditating on the body of the crucified Christ. This performance, in partnership with the Royal College of Music, was in fact the opening event of ETO’s autumn touring season, and as such, it was a brave decision to present an almost entirely student ensemble.
James Conway, general director of ETO, spoke enthusiastically of the importance of working with today’s students, and how he hoped the collaboration would give these young musicians a special opportunity to express themselves. What we were about to see, Conway said, was ‘work in progress, but work of which we’re very proud’.
The absence of any cast list made it difficult to single out performers for their contributions; however, in the light of this performance, I feel that those involved may prefer to remain nameless.
The staging consists of a number of steel-grey benches and blocks which the singers move around and disport themselves on, all the while embracing, manipulating and engaging with a sixth figure, who embodies some of the attributes of Christ but remains silent throughout.
While there are some nice touches in the acting – for example, each singer approaching Christ’s wounded side in ‘Ad latus’ but being deflected away, clutching their own side, thus reinforcing the work’s overall message of transferring Christ’s sufferings onto oneself – it mostly consists alternatively of meaningless gestures and of over-telegraphed word-painting, doing nothing to heighten the imagery of the text.
The singers – two sopranos and one each of counter-tenor, tenor and baritone – are completely mismatched, with the lower voices singing far louder than the upper. Individually, there were rare moments of controlled, sensitive singing – the first soprano in particular stood out with her warm, rounded sound – but on the whole what one hears is five soloists singing for themselves only.
The ensemble singing is seldom together or in time with the orchestra, and the balance completely wrong, with the baritone completely obliterating his colleagues and showing almost no sensitivity to line or tone colour. On the whole, there is little awareness of natural cadence or climactic points in phrases and movements; in my opinion, far more time ought to have been devoted to making the five singers gel as a group.
The instruments fare little better. Historical performance students from the RCM, although directed from the keyboard by Michael Rosewell (head of opera at the RCM, and ETO’s musical director), they suffer from a lack of direction and lack of sensitivity to the never-ending dance that runs through Buxtehude’s work, while the odd ways in which tempo changes between sections is managed makes for unsettling listening.
The pianist Artur Schnabel said that what he relished most was music ‘that is better than it can be performed’. Membra Jesu Nostri, in my opinion, falls into this category – and thank goodness for that, as the music itself was the only aspect of this performance of any worth.