“I’m an old man, but I’m profoundly optimistic about nothing.”
Francis Bacon said no end of fascinating things, about painting, art, life, everything really. So listening to his thoughts, especially when guided along by an interviewer as expert as Melvyn Bragg, was always going to make for an entertaining evening.
The Crowe Ensemble’s Francis Bacon Opera, which sets a South Bank Show interview between these two men to music verbatim, was onto a winner from the start, and there’s certainly much to enjoy about this enterprising piece, currently at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in Hammersmith.
The Francis Bacon Opera takes three scenes from the interview, charting (and slightly exaggerating, I’d guess) the developing relationship between interviewer and interviewee, and dwelling on Bacon’s numerous provocative thoughts on the nature and significance of his art. Most of it is set to music, and some of it is spoken. Stephen Crowe both composed and directed the piece, and Christopher Killerby (Bacon) and Oliver Brignall (Bragg) were accompanied from the piano by Elspeth Wilkes. It all ran very smoothly, with a strange yellow cube for a set and strong performances.
By working from such genuinely absorbing initial material, The Francis Bacon Opera inverts the problem which opera usually encounters. More commonly with opera, a rather naff text is made up for by considerably more interesting music, but here I found myself so engrossed in the words that the music somewhat fell away: I’m left with the memory of any number of brilliant and weird one-liners, but little memory of how they were set to music. When Bacon declared that “The mouth is rather like a Turner”, for instance, I did what I think was natural, and obsessed over what in the world he might have meant by this such that I wasn’t really paying attention to the music. Maybe there’s a reason so many libretti are dull.
The two singers both knew their way around the piece very well and performed with panache. Both tenors, they showed real rapport with each other and were expertly in character throughout, delivering the spoken sections as enthusiastically as the sung ones. Vocally, Brignall’s Bragg had a broader tone and outshone his interviewee at times, though Killerby’s light voice was well suited to his role.
As for the music overall, I wasn’t fully convinced. It was composed in a structurally free arioso style which did not impose a strong imprint of its own onto the dialogue, often letting the text simply speak for itself. There were occasional moments which were musically highlighted or exaggerated: when introducing Bacon as “widely held to be the greatest living painter in the world”, Bragg sings a hysterical falsetto on “world”, pointing to the hyperbole of this claim; there’s also a long and curious duet on the word “voluptuousness” towards the end, for some reason. But overall, I didn’t feel that Stephen Crowe was offering a fresh perspective on the material so much as standing back from it. Which is all very well, but I did feel it was a slight shame that the most interesting aspects of the piece are available in a more straightforward form on YouTube.
Bragg asks at one point what Bacon is presenting through his work: “Nothing, except what people want to read into it – nothing”, is the artist’s reply. And as a similarly direct, presentational piece, this opera is very interesting, especially due to the engaging performances from its two characters. It’s up at the Edinburgh Fringe from this weekend, and is well worth a look.
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