Not of this World – May 18, 2007

Not of this World
Anders Nordentoft, On This Planet

Thomas Sandberg, The Male
Heather Pawsy, Mother Earth
Bill Linwood, conductor
MacPherson Playhouse Theatre, May 18/19, 2007
By Deryk Barker

“Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short, but when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day.” (Emerson)

One one level it is easy to say what Anders Nordentoft’s remarkable opera On This Planet is “about”: the eternal cycle of life, love and death, epitomised by its central, Everyman-like figure, The Male.

But it is as if Nordentoft had embraced Mahler’s notion that “a symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything!” and extended it into the opera house. Like life itself, On This Planet, is all-encompassing, simultaneously all too brief yet seemingly eternal.

And like the majority of the human race, The Male spends a good deal of his time in a state of uncertainty and no little confusion.

Friday’s North American premiere was a much-anticipated event which, unlike many such, did not disappoint and, in fact, exceeded expectations.

Thomas Sandberg, as The Male, was mesmerising, whether crooning one of the work’s lyrical songs, voicing his paranoia about the amount of sand to an uncaring world, or calmly awaiting the attending medics in their white coats. No doubt one day somebody else will take on this role, but at the moment it is hard to imagine.

In an orchestra pit bristling with microphones and electronics, Bill Linwood directed a performance of tremendous energy and subtlety. As one has come to expect, his musicians cast aside any technical difficulties with aplomb, allowing the music to make its full – and considerable – impact.

Nordentoft has a unique voice; while clearly a “post modern” composer with an eclectic sensibility, his music has a distinctly personal style, follows no “school” and has no obvious direct influences.

While he has a handy selection of modernistic effects up his sleeve – I’ll merely cite the musical saw, electric violin and various electronics normally associated with rock music – one never gets the sense that he is simply “cherry picking” interesting sounds.

Nordentoft has created his own language from pre-existing vocabularies. His orchestra is capable of making very loud and violent sounds, but also of great beauty – I am thinking, particularly, of the absolutely gorgeous viola counter-melody to one of the songs (was it “Don’t Be Afraid?” I’m not used to taking notes in a darkened room).

The only other singing role in the work is that of Mother Earth, sung most tenderly by Heather Pawsey – even though I did think I saw the ghost of a smile cross Linwood’s lips every time she sang the line about sleeping “as ants cross over your eyelids”.

The rest of the company is not called upon to sing – although there was a good deal of whispering near the end – and spend much of their time walking the stage in geometrically precise formations while ignoring The Male’s rantings about sand, ants, happy fish, and the like. Which they did very well indeed.

As to the staging, it was most impressive and effective. Not everything worked perfectly – the positive projection on to the massive head, for example, looked a bit odd, but when the projected image switched to the negative it looked truly spooky – but the overall impression was of a monumental and elemental symbolism.

I do not pretend that I understood every detail of On This Planet, but then it is surely the mark of the first-rate artist that he or she can articulate what the rest of us cannot.

On This Planet is a great musical, dramatic and theatrical experience. Friday’s premiere was a magnificent achievement.

I’m going again tonight. If you missed Friday’s performance you still have one last chance. Don’t miss it.