The provocative new opera takes the listener on a fantastical journey into the dark worlds of racist stereotyping, gene therapy and cloning. Standard double jewelcase and booklet housed in a slipcase. Warner. 2002.
Just as the narrative thread of Michael Nyman's most ambitious operatic undertaking zigzags through three centuries in search of Goya's skull, his quirky minimalist-based compositional style refuses to stay on a steady course. Vocal lines are rarely melodic in the conventional operatic sense of ebb and flow. Instead, they leap wide intervalic distances that deliberately preclude one's understanding of words, and the few words you can make out are set with the loopiest prosody since the heyday of madrigals. Nyman's characteristically thin strings trade asymmetrical riffs with quacky brass figurations. They often recall Stravinsky's motoric momentum filtered through Philip Glass's freeze-framed modules, with a richer, more sophisticated harmonic vocabulary than you get from Nyman's film scores
for Peter Greenaway.
Once in a while, a disarming tune of the neo-Petula Clark variety seeps through, allowing the five cast members to be the real, adroit singers that they are, rather than instrumentalists who happen to possess impressively agile singing voices. Don't worry if you mistake Hilary Summers's chesty contralto for a countertenor at first hearing, or Harry Nicoll's round, light tenor for a contralto! No such vocal gender crisis engulfs Omar Brahim's roomy baritone or the two sopranos' frequent flights into the stratosphere. More significant, it's a tribute to Nyman's restless musical invention that Facing Goya easily sustains your listening attention shorn of its striking visual and theatrical components. Enthusiastically recommended. --Jed Distler