JOE BATES was blown away very quietly by Joel Rust and David Troupes’s Nauset
February 4th, Emmanuel College Chapel
Nauset, a chamber opera by Joel Rust (composer) and David Troupes (librettist)
Conducted by Christopher Stark
Almost nothing happens in Nauset. There is no dialogue and no action; no character development and no plot; no set and no costumes. It is a reviewer’s nightmare. Yet its mesmerising music, exquisite libretto and powerful emotional content make it an audience’s dream.
For the short opera is much like a dream. It is comprised of separate, timeless vignettes, set to slow breathed music of great frailty. We hear three songs by three different characters: a daughter (Joanna Songi), a wife (Louise Kemeny) and a father (Edward Leach). Each discusses the father’s obsession with the sea and suggested drowning, and it is their nuanced emotional responses that form the content of the opera.
The overture established the sonic background of the piece. Softly dissonant chords, fleetingly touched with hints of major and minor, were exchanged between the strings and woodwind in display of virtuosic orchestration. The ensemble, conducted by Christopher Stark, initially struggled to find the control necessary for such still music. Yet as the slow moving harmonic zones were punctuated by rumbling percussion, the players warmed up and gained the confidence to play at the easily scrutinized low volumes.
The daughter’s song followed. Songi’s voice was flawlessly suspended above terse strings, suggesting an emotional disconnection that was, initially, bizarre. Yet as the piece unfolded, the extreme stillness became incredibly affecting. By the time the song ended on a ravishing unison chord, the atmosphere was tense and expectant.
The first song was separated from the second by a lengthy and slightly inexplicable bassoon solo. Whilst the sudden contrast of texture was arresting, the structural relevance was not revealed until the corresponding ‘cello solo between the second and third songs. This ellipsis was beautifully played by Tom Wraith, with variance of tone and virtuosic control.
Between these two interjections, the second song stretched musical restraint to breaking point. The terse strings and rumbling marimba continued at a low volume underneath the wife’s lament. Kemeny’s vibrato initially dominated her slightly uneasy tone, but as she warmed to the role, the richness of her voice was revealed. The climax was reserved until near the end, when increasing dissonance and vocal intensity resulted in the first truly cathartic moment of the evening.
Yet this emotional release was quickly restrained; the tension restored. It seemed as if a true climax was impossible given the consistency of tone. Rust and Troupes’s solution was stunning. In an opera suffused with beautiful music and poetry, a silent culmination was a bold and compelling surprise.
The father entered unexpectedly from the audience’s rear to the sound of falling stones. He stood, barefoot, with his back to the crowd; silent and vulnerable. As the threatening music re-emerged, the source of the opera’s tension was finally exposed. The father’s brief, troubled stanzas revealed his longing for the ocean and rejection of his family. As the piece died on a dissonance, the awkwardness of the opening suddenly seemed to make sense.
This was an opera of genuine, mature talent. David Troupes’s libretto was striking, combining intense, often obscure, imagery with vernacular phrases like ‘eels in a stew’ to great effect. Unfortunately, its clear trajectory was sometimes undermined by the slightly discontinuous musical structure.
The only true disappointment of the evening was the setting. The shadowy textures and static staging were not suited to the well lit chapel of Emmanuel College. The atmosphere was unfortunately undermined by the thoughtless presentation.
Despite this, Nauset remains the most convincing student production I have seen at Cambridge. Perhaps its limited scope allowed greater control than is normal, or maybe it was simply the talent of the individuals involved. Either way: more, please, soon.