A visit to hear a contemporary opera is always a gamble, especially if the commission is the composer’s first foray into that world. Between Worlds is a co-commission between English National Opera and the Barbican which premiered tonight at the Barbican Theatre. Although Tansy Davies is a former pupil of Simon Holt and Simon Bainbridge, both of whose musics I know rather well, I admit I have not heard a lot of her compositions, with one notable exception. More than a decade ago I participated in the world premiere of one of Ms Davies’ chamber works. I remember she asked a lot of the flautist, allowing in one case only a beat and a half in which to change from piccolo to alto flute. That’s the equivalent of changing mid-phrase from stratospheric soprano to juicy baritone – worlds apart.

Having decided with her librettist, Nicholas Drake that the subject of her first opera would be the attacks on the World Trade Center with the concomitant massive loss of innocent lives, Ms Davies had to find a way to depict the unconscionable and express the inexpressible. As she herself wrote, “I slowly realised that the enormity of this challenge was something that opera with its infinite capacity to adapt and reach for the highest heights and deepest depths could embrace.”

As part of the promotion of this production, there was a feature on BBC Radio 4 PM programme about whether the relative of a victim thought it was too soon for art to comment on such a shocking event. Nobody mentioned that the New York Philharmonic specifically commissioned John Adams to write On the Transmigration of Souls less than a year after 9/11. She thought it crude to make a piece of entertainment out of a tragedy, but Mr Drake was resolute in his argument that the purpose of art is not merely to entertain, but also to effect catharsis. I would go a step further and assert that a good novel, a thought-provoking film and visual art which prompts reflection on the human condition has social and therapeutic value. It helps us process what it means to be human. However, the multi-layered art form of opera has intrinsic as well applied value and it is part of my brief to talk about the quality of work from the composer as well as the performers (under the baton of Gerry Cornelius.) The sum of those constituent parts too is so much more than mere entertainment.

The most annoying aspect of the PM feature was the fact that at no time was the composer mentioned. Isn’t it time we did something about the arts coverage in this country? There are plenty of commentators out there who know something of music. Why are we sidetracked into talking about the production or nuances in the libretto on radio and television review programmes when it’s the creator of the music who is commissioned to write an opera? Prima la musica and all that.

As we entered the auditorium, the cast was already on stage. The set had three levels, the highest of which was inhabited by a Shaman, functioning as a conduit between this world and the next. The middle section represented a floor in the north tower of the World Trade Center in ŵhich our protagonists were to become trapped by fire below and locked doors above. The ground floor was laid out like a cross between a waiting room and a subway train. It was on this ground level, “Ground zero” perhaps, that we were given a snapshot of each protagonist’s back story. It did double duty as the foyer where those who escaped were triaged, as the place where co-workers, local citizens and relatives watched events unfold. Finally this was a place of mourning for those who were lost by those who were left.

This concept was the brainchild of Deborah Warner. You really notice on those rare occasions when the music of a new opera and the concept of the production match each other perfectly. I’ve seen it once at the Bastille in an opera by Dusapin; how marvellous it was to witness such good work coming from ENO when they are under such a cloud. This was an example of a composer who for once was not at the end of the food chain, but was listened to. At least this was the impression I got from this production. The grieving relative of one who was lost on 9/11 need not have worried about abuse of privacy or the exploitation of horror. Everything about Between Worlds was subtle, simple, reflective and meaningful.

At the beginning of the work Ms Davies builds a sense of foreboding with a shifting surface of melancholy strings. Above this the Shaman (Andrew Watts) has a haunting whistling melody and does his best to ward off evil with a mix of chanting and ‘beatbox’ vocalisations. We know that something unthinkable is going to happen, yet the musical preparation for this is slow and subtle, delivering a generalised sense of unease, a sense of impending doom which remains unformed and unclassified.

At the heart of the work is the character of the Janitor, played by the American Wagnerian baritone, Eric Greene. I found Mr Greene’s vocal performance, his diction and his characterisation of a man who cares for others and takes responsibility the tour de force of the evening. He not only projected his rich voice, but also dignity and nobility in the face of such horror. It made sense to me that he, the Janitor, was the one person capable of making the spiritual connection with the Shaman, enabling him to prepare the distressed protagonists for a nobler death. His attunement with the Shaman, although their hands never quite touched, was palpable. For this listener, this was the first of three profoundly moving moments in the drama.

The second was created by Susan Bickley, depicting the mother of a son, perhaps the most vulnerable of those victims whose death we witnessed whilst trapped in the north tower. When she receives the message her son left on her answer machine, she is unable to return the call but obeys his instruction not to watch the horror unfolding on the television. Instead she sends him a heart-wrenching song of love, her only means of transcending the chaos and darkness caused by fire and collapse of the World Trade Center. Ms Bickley is, as ever, utterly convincing as the embodiment of all those who prayed they could do something to save their loved ones, seemingly helpless in the face of unimaginable terror. She clearly believes a mother’s love can travel between worlds. Call me sentimental, but I believe it can too. William Morgan played her vulnerable son, negotiating some arioso writing in the highest tenor tessitura. It doesn’t say so in the synopsis, but when this young man is unable to make a last phone call home because the lines go down when the south tower collapses, he sings with the Shaman. As a result, a channel of communication opens between him and his sister below, (played sweetly by Niamh Kelly) who exhorts him to sing Psalm 130 with her.

The disaster of 9/11 respected no one. People of every creed and colour were annihilated without discrimination. When the firemen, played by Philip Sheffield and Rodney Earl Clarke find the bodies of the dead after the fire but before the building collapses, they start to sing the Requiem Mass in Latin before climbing higher to their own deaths. The Janitor sings the Mass in Spanish whilst the Shaman intersperses the Latin words with the mantra the Janitor used to calm the young man with vertigo: “Don’t look down; look out.” Maybe it is paradoxical that the young man’s sister exhorts him to sing “Out of the depths I cry unto thee” when the victims are trapped more than a hundred floors up. To me it seemed entirely apposite as the plea of those who face calamity. It was a nice touch that one of the protagonists covered his head and recited in Hebrew.

The other trapped protagonists are a realtor who is a single parent, devastated that she has had an unresolved row with her small son before leaving to go to her death (Clare Presland,) a young lesbian leaving her lover’s arms (Rhian Lois) and a Jewish businessman who is cheating on his wife and goes to an early meeting instead of keeping an appointment with his cardiologist (Phillip Rhodes.) Along with the Janitor who has chosen to stay late when his night shift is over and the Young Man who shouldn’t have agreed to attend a meeting high in a skyscraper when he has a pathological fear of heights, all the protagonists could or should have been somewhere else when disaster strikes. This illustrates how random 9/11 was, how it could have happened to anybody, that it was a matter of chance who survived because they overslept, but also can have religious overtones of “Why me,?” the question many ask when faced with a diagnosis of cancer.

These young singers, along with Sarah Champion as the lesbian lover, Claire Egan as the babysitter and Susan Young as the wife, make an excellent ensemble cast, supporting the star turns from Mr Greene, Mr Watts and Ms Bickley. Throughout the opera, as well as the observations of the Shaman who watches over those on earth but cannot change their fate himself, we have a sizeable chorus who witness the horror and at the end encircle the victims and their relatives with love and respect. Ms Davies’ choral writing is an outstanding feature of this opera. The singers -including those who feature in the backstory of the protagonists, the fireman and the Security Guard (Ronald Samm) – become a living dynamic swarm of humanity, conveying the horror, disbelief, pity and grief experienced by anyone who witnessed 9/11, whether viewing it from Manhattan or thousands of miles away on television. Andrew Clements writes that Ms Davies’ music has never reminded him of music by any other composer. I respectfully disagree as I sensed echoes of early Penderecki, such as the St Luke Passion which moved me so much in the late ’70s. With the use of chord clusters, Ms Davies creates beauty out of dissonance. The solo vocal lines, particularly those written at the top of Mr Watts’ voice are hauntingly beautiful, tapping into something atavistic and visceral, as was the lament led by the Sister at the end of the opera when both towers have collapsed.

The third most beautiful moment came at the end. The Shaman, whose alter ego we have already witnessed suspended in the air, purifying the dying World Trade Center, is said in the synopsis to be united with the Janitor as he takes his leap of Faith into the abyss. Instead of this we saw a young man floating in the air (choreographed by Kim Brandstrup) who for me represented the iconic ‘Falling Man.’ A female dancer, who I think represented the Sister, ministered to him, creating the image of a young woman from a painting of the Pietà, depicting the profound sadness I associate with sacrifice; brutal and yet also carrying the hope of transcendence.

I would exhort anyone who was moved by the sea of red poppies at the Tower of London to come and experience Between Worlds. It is a wonderful, haunting and profoundly moving piece of work.

5 stars

Miranda Jackson