It certainly wants to be more than just a musical conversation between two composers. But its ambition is often its own worst enemy.
Performed at Printworks, which usually houses DJ sets and raves, it’s an artistic free-for-all with everything thrown at the wall. The Handel and Glass combinations are taken from Roth’s Grammy award winning album ARC. Karen Kamensek conducts the English National Opera Orchestra alongside a variety of films projected overhead, artist Glenn Brown produces live painting, there are dancers darting around, and Jason Singh’s “nature beatboxing.”
Everything clamours for attention; moments of coherence are few and far between. When the different media do fuse its the psycology of Glass’s brooding repetition leading the charge in carving the fraught emotional landscape. The visuals add colour afterwards. The Prom sees first performances of extracts from Songs from Liquid Days, Monsters of Grace, and The Fall of the House of Usher, alongside a world premiere of ‘No more, you petty spirits’ from Cymbeline.
It’s the opposite with the Handel whose music is sadly relegated secondary to the visuals. His ‘Vivi, tiranno’ from Rodelinda is juxtaposed with a loud satirical collage of videos from Toiletpaper Magazine’s Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari; brash and surreal inversions of adverts and dadaesque visual puns are projected onto the venue’s walls.
The films are vaguely linked by a theme of evolution. Starting with Handel’s Rinaldo, medieval knights wander green and pleasant lands. It then morphs into a clunky 90’s video game before it mutates into a futuristic cityscape with humanoid robots wandering around contemplating their trans-human existence. The narrative, as ambiguous as it is, chimes with Glass’ undecorated and precise emotional language, but the overstuffed visuals become too bombastic and too distracting alongside the rich complexity of Handel’s music.
Naturally some of it does veer into pretentiousness. Costanzo strides through the crowd guided by assistants brandishing blinding lights to split them as if he is the messiah descending from Heaven. It’s a little bit silly, but it is undeniably exhilarating to be so close to Costanzo’s blisteringly melancholic performance as lights, colours, and sounds swirl around above.
The experience is only possible because of Printworks. The space is entirely democratic. There is no hierarchy as in other venues; there is no best seat in the house. The audience can and do move around the space engendering a sense of conceptual freedom to engage in the artistic anarchy unravelling around them. But there are some trade-offs: the orchestra rely on microphones giving their timbre a distinctly metallic quality. Whilst fitting for the industrial ambiance, Printworks is an old printing plant clad in concrete and metal, it leaves the orchestra feeling cold.
But maybe it is something that is best enjoyed without overthinking. Picking one thing and focusing on one’s own narrative is the way to engage in this, not letting everything battle for attention. It’s a bit like an art gallery in that sense: you can’t give every painting the time it deserves so best to pick out a handful to savour.