Forest Fire on a continental divide
Or the Hapless Landing, Almeida
Almeida Opera seldom fails to surprise. Last year's delightfully unlikely success, Batistelli's 'artisan musical' Experimentum Mundi, was revived last week to launch the current season, whose first new project is equally unlikely and, if not precisely delightful, then certainly attention-grabbing.
Heiner Goebbels' and Boubakar Djebate's Or the Hapless Landing ist a melodrama, text spoken over or against music. There are three strands of text, spoken mostly in French (Andre Wilms), on the subject of forests: Joseph Conrad's Congo Diary; Francis Ponge's meditative Pinewood Notebook of 1940; and Heiner Mueller's Herakles 2, describing the hero's search for the Hydra ('the forest is the beast').
There are two strands of music: African, or more precisely Senegalese (Djebate), and contemporary Western (Goebbels). The virtuose Djebate plays the kora, a harp constructed from a pumpkin, and a very well-tempered harp it is too, with nothing 'primitive' about it. Sira Djebate sings traditional Senegalese Griots quite exquisitely. Against them are ranged trombone, electric guitar, keyboard-sampler and - bridging the divide - the Daxophon, a small piece of wood sounded by a bow and amplified: the range of jungular noises it produces it simply bewildering.
As in all melodrama there is conflict between word and note: it is more difficult for the human brain to absorb the two when the words are not simply set to music. There is also a conflict between two musical languages. At first I resented Goebbels' jazz-based, somewhat brutal modernism intruding on the less familiar Senegalese sound-world; gradually it became more African, with the trombonist Yves Robert sounding as though he had long been studying the cries of elephants. While nothing so vulguar as a synthesis was achieved, African rhythms eventually tempered and somehow tamed European inventions, just as Ponge's vaguely upbeat musings conversely tempered the terrors of Conrad and Mueller.
That is just one reaction: as in all the best journeys into forests, there was no telling exactly where you were going. But at just over an hour, it was a musical journey that gripped the imagination from first to last.
The Times (GB), 5 July 1996