The Royal Opera and London Sinfonietta Reveal a Cave at the Printworks, London


All operas are about more than just the music. In the case of composer Tansy Davies and librettist Nick Drake’s new creation Cave, however, the music, word, message and setting all possess such significance that the work would have been all the poorer had any of them not received the attention that they do.

This is the second time that Davies and Drake have collaborated, following Between Worlds, which was produced by English National Opera and staged at the Barbican Theatre in 2015. That told the story of a group of people trapped in the North Tower during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and hence explored the thoughts and lives of multiple protagonists. Cave, in direct contrast, includes just two characters, but in terms of what has happened to them and how they choose to respond, it involves the whole world.

Cave - Elaine Mitchener, London Sinfonietta (c) ROH, photo by Manuel Harlan

Davies and Drake were inspired by the Cave of Niaux in the French Pyrenees. This contains a vast cavern known as the Black Hall, in which can be found an impressive array of prehistoric paintings. These were created around 12,000 years ago by the Magdalenian huntspeople at the end of the last Ice Age. They almost certainly held a religious significance as the people would have been attempting to meet the difficulties posed by their supply of animals receding as the climate changed. Davies and Drake were fascinated by the way in which this cave stands as a constant, appearing today exactly as it would have done thousands of years ago. They were thus inspired to exploit its significance at a time when, like the people who created its images, humans are facing environmental disaster once more.

The story thus involves a man who, after the world has been decimated by an ecological disaster, enters a cave crying for his dead daughter, Hannah. Smartly dressed, but overwhelmed by despair, he tears off his jacket, casts aside his mobile and burns his briefcase as he tries to perform a ritual for Hannah. Through some hallucination, he does ends up meeting her, and she gives him the courage to accept that things do not have to be over, and that the choices we make as individuals can help to reshape or rebuild the future. Although the man does not find it easy to accept the challenge she essentially offers, in the end he dresses himself once more and re-enters the world with the aim of returning it to a happier time.

Cave represents a co-production between the Royal Opera and London Sinfonietta, the new music ensemble currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary season. Conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, it seems to capture the meaning behind Davies’ score extremely well as the subtlety to be found within much of it rubs shoulders with bolder, more violent suggestions.

Cave - Mark Padmore (c) London Sinfonietta / ROH - photo by Manuel Harlan

Mark Padmore, with his superb tenor, is excellent as the man as his eyes convey his agitation, but also final resolve, with a sense of unflinching honesty. Elaine Mitchener is equally outstanding as Hannah, with her highly individual and intriguing voice combining with her talents as a movement artist.

The factor that really clinches the evening, however, is the setting. Lucy Bailey’s production is presented at Canada Water’s Printworks, a warehouse-like structure that was the former home of the Evening Standard, and now, appropriately enough for this opera, stands as a symbol of post-industrial London.

The audience enters the complex through guarded gates, while the ‘foyer’ is low-lit and mysterious. The auditorium is long with a high ceiling, and when audience members enter it, it feels as if they are entering the cave before Padmore himself arrives. The seating is either side of the long performance area, which possesses a ‘dirt’ floor, while the London Sinfonietta is positioned at the far end of it. It is the atmosphere generated by all of this that sets the seal on an interesting and worthwhile new opera that also features some excellent musical performances.

By Sam Smith

Cave | 20 – 23 June 2018 | Printworks, London

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