Dai Fujikura is a Japanese-born composer who lives in London. He went to secondary school in the UK and learned his craft from Daryl Runswick and George Benjamin. Although aged only 37, he has been commissioned by some of the world’s finest orchestras as well as new music ensembles. The opera, Solaris which is a joint commission between the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, l’Opéra de Lille, l’Opéra de Lausanne, IRCAM-Centre Pompidou and Ensemble intercontemporain is his first foray into the opera world.

Mr Fujikura made two very bold choices when deciding what would form the basis of his libretto. The first was his decision to make a text from the eponymous novel by Stanislaw Lem, an extraordinary product of the imagination which has inspired film makers for generations. The second was to choose as his principal collaborator the internationally renowned dancer, choreographer and film-maker, Saburo Teshigawara. Mr Fujikura’s first opera was for me a must-see event, as his past commissions have illustrated his particular ability to construct imaginary worlds into which he proceeds to abduct the audience. However I had some reservations about the balance between the creators of this production, so hot on the heels of Peter Sellars’ patchwork at ENO of central American and English elements in which the production totally dominated the music. The proposition here was a Polish novel realised for the stage by a Japanese composer and director with a French ensemble, IRCAM technology, sung in English with French surtitles – another multi-ethnic, multi-artform production in which Mr Fujikura’s musical creation could so easily have been subsumed.

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The production opened in silence – at the behest of Ulf Langheinrich who was responsible for “images” as well as lighting design – with all of us wearing 3D glasses to watch a short film. Apparently Mr Fujikura had created an electronic soundtrack for the opening, but this was ruled out by the visual team. What we saw was the movement of millions of particles with constantly evolving changes to their organisation as well as the depth of field. This conveyed to me the idea of the protracted journey to a space station plus the terrifying sensation of falling through space without the anchor of gravity. It was an entirely appropriate metaphor for the shifting sense of identity and a lack of being anchored to the space-time continuum which Lem explores. Given the choice, I would have liked to hear the music. Mr Fujikura created an electronic soundscape of Kensington Gardens entitled I dreamed on singing flowers for the 2012 BBC Proms season which enabled me to visualize a walk into the park and back out again to the Royal Albert Hall without stepping outside my front door. He has also written chamber works such as Swarming essence which map the swirling, twisting and floating movements of insects and fish in which they separate and then rejoin the swarm.

Anyone who has read the novel or seen the Tarkovsky or Soderbergh/Clooney films will know that Planet “Solaris” has a mysterious form of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence which reflects back the human spirit. It creates particular human clones from the unconscious minds of those who have walked its surface, in this case scientists from the observation station. Astronaut and scientist, Kris Kelvin has recently come to Solaris to assist Professor Snaut. Kelvin is still tormented by the suicide ten years ago of his wife, Hari. She killed herself after a row when he walked out of their home and disappeared. He came home too late to find her body stiff and cold. When he arrives on Solaris he makes a shocking discovery: his wife, the same Hari, is there in the flesh. Is this really her, or is it a copy? After the surprise and joy, comes trouble. The novel depicts Kelvin’s attempt to process his guilt over his late wife’s death. Rather than a “science fiction” novel, Solaris is a psychological drama that tackles the profound human issues of identity, responsibility and suffering. The dialogues between Hari and Kelvin are beautiful, rich with ambiguity. They convey the desire to love and the need to respect, despite the artificiality of their situation.

The opera, which is nominally in four acts but performed without an interval, is for me consistently captivating. Thanks in part to the sublime playing of Ensemble intercontemporain under the skilled baton of Erik Nielsen, the music maintains dramatic and psychological tension throughout. The fact that Mr Fujikura has such a heightened visual sense himself is key. He is able to convey the other-worldliness of Solaris with its creatures derived from and developed by the human mind in parallel with the very real and timeless human dilemma faced by Kris, who lives in the present but decides a future existence as part of the sea of Solaris is preferable to living with the loss of Hari.

As well as the stunning live playing, the sound of the performers weaves in and out of live reactive electronics, created in IRCAM by Gilbert Nouno and the composer. This opera has seven performances scheduled and, as a result of the live electronic processing, each one will be different. The results of this process are particularly noticeable in in the treatment of the couple at the heart of this psychodrama. The beautiful crystalline singing of Sarah Tynan expresses the iconic beauty and fragility of Hari, but is processed by the computer to give her performance an edginess that conveys the elusive nature of what is essentially a hologram with a mind of its own.

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The most striking example of the dimension of the unconscious realm of “Solaris” is provided by the character of Kelvin, who is given two voices: one normally perceptible, sung on stage by Leigh Melrose, a lyric baritone who is very convincing (like all the singers of this production), accompanied particularly by the sounds of bassoon and French horn. A second voice, his inner voice if you will, is sung ‘off camera’ by Marcus Farnsworth, “which gives us the impression that we are in Kris’ head,” said Dai Fujikura, enabling us to shift from the opening position, where Kalvin is real and Hari a co-creation between his mind and Solaris, to the question of whether Kalvin’s experience too is something beyond human. Transformed by the electronics and broadcast in the room through the speakers creating a spatial effect, the offstage voice sings often sings the opposite of what is said on stage. Whilst Melrose is bullish, an alpha male, Farnsworth expresses his inner thoughts nervously, staccato, almost in a whisper.

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Throughout the opera, Professor Snaut in the form of the timeless, inimitable Tom Randle keeps the audience guessing if we are observing an other-wordly encounter between a scientist and a copy of his late wife, or one man’s internalised nervous breakdown. We are given a clue by the depiction of Gibarian (played by Callum Thorpe, a wonderful rich and charismatic bass) who has previously been driven to suicide. These five singers form a magnificent ensemble cast of the highest order – in fact I ended up asking myself when the last time was I heard such a stunning all-British cast in the UK.

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Those of you who, like me, questioned if we really needed dancing, the spoken word and manic countertenors all cluttering the stage at the same time in what should have been a love scene in The Indian Queen will perhaps not be pleased to hear that, in the Teshigawara production, each character is also depicted by a dancer. The singers for the most part wear a form of black futuristic straight jacket designed to deflect visual attention away from them onto the pas de deux ou trois in the centre of a white cube. The three dancers, Rihoko Sato, Václav Kunes and Nicolas Le Riche were truly world class and compelling to watch. The appearance of Mr Teshigawara himself at the opening and, inexplicably about half way through, again in silence without that pesky music to distract from his artistic message, although clearly skilful and imaginative, seemed gratuitous to me. It would have been fine if this had been the drama of Solaris depicted solely through the medium of modern dance.

Such was the extraordinary ability of this singing cast to inhabit Lem’s characters and act the drama with the use of their voices alone and so effective was Mr Fujikura’s score that the visual and aural elements that this opera could be very well staged elsewhere without the dance element.

One final word on the text: one French critic struggled a little with the word setting in Solaris. English is not the most grateful of languages to sing at the best of times, never mind words which started life in Polish, were translated into Japanese and only then was set to music. Every British (or British-adopted) composer has to find a way to make the language sound poetic when sung. The text of Solaris is pared down, even laconic. Think Paul Auster or Robert Frost if you will. In the context of static singers in black and expressive dancers confined to a white cube, it was the role of the music emanating from the pit and the mixing desk to provide the layering of technicolour dreams, full of floating, shifting shapes, which the drama requires.

Miranda Jackson

4 stars

Photos: Vincent Pontet

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