British composer Brian Ferneyhough and American poet Charles Bernstein have called their first collaboration, "Shadowtime," a "thought opera." This investigation into the life and work of German philosopher Walter Benjamin had its American premiere as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, which specializes in difficult new international works.
Thought opera is the creators' name for a form that interweaves dramatic scenes, philosophical meditations, and musical interludes. The philosophical ideas are taken from Benjamin's major themes: the nature of history, time, language, and melancholy.
"Shadowtime" is too cerebral to be understood in performance, even though the singers from the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the musicians from the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, under the direction of conductor Jurjen Hempel, did a fine job. "Shadowtime" presupposes a thorough knowledge of Benjamin's ideas. Both music and text are layered, often with several musical lines being played or sung simultaneously, making it almost impossible to make out the words. Frédéric Fisbach's surrealistic staging does not make it any easier to follow the text. The detailed plot synopsis is the only guide.
The opera begins with Benjamin's arrival at the Spanish border on Sept. 25, 1940, where he committed suicide when turned back to Nazi-controlled France. The rest of the six scenes are investigations into Benjamin's ideas or fantasies, such as the fifth scene, in which he is interrogated by 11 emblematic historical figures. Bass Ekkehard Abele's Benjamin is mainly an observer throughout, and so he is given little to sing.
The most effective section is the fourth scene, in which a "reciter" turns into a Las Vegas piano-bar performer spouting aphorisms and nonsense verses to a piano solo, representing Benjamin's descent into the shadow world. Pianist Nicolas Hodges is extraordinary in this segment, which features the best music in the score.