Facing Goya

by Michael Nyman
libretto by Victoria Hardie
Spoleto Festival USA
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014: Legacy and the Expanded Classic
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

This much-vaunted opening production of the revamped Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014, premiering at the beautifully refurbished Victoria Theatre, appears to deliver much but unfortunately makes for a tedious and rather disconcerting evening.

Composed by the celebrated Michael Nyman, featuring a libretto by Victoria Hardie and directed by local thespian Ong Keng Sen, Facing Goya is a pop-jazz opera sung in English that deals with themes of cloning, art and the ethics of science. We start off with an Art Banker (a regal, statuesque Suzanna Guzman) who professes her love for the iconoclastic and visionary Spanish painter Francisco Goya. It was rumoured that Goya had asked for his head to be removed from his body prior to burial to avoid people getting their hands on his brain, his very creative core. Consumed by a desire to bring this remarkable individual back to life, we follow the Art Banker on a surreal trip through time.

Photo Credit: SIFA

She first visits nineteenth century craniometrists, men who measure the dimensions of skulls to determine how the size and shape associated with some races make them more superior than others. Next, we encounter art historians of the twentieth century, a group of critics fuelling Hitler's agenda of propagating a pure Aryan race and culling anything that did not meet the mark ("the negro is closer to the monkey", it is loudly proclaimed). Finally, we run into the biotechnologists of today who expound on the possibilities of playing with DNA and crafting a new genetically superior breed of the human species. Can the creative gene of Goya be cloned to create another artistic genius? Can scientific progress translate into material gain? The ensemble of four actors march around with giant sequined skulls perched on their heads, highlighting a world where science can so easily be commoditised.

The potent issue of racism and chauvinism is driven home by deliberately having the four actors being of different races and genders: two are white, two are men. When a resurrected Goya finally emerges at the end, he is revealed to have a mind of his own and decides to pursue his own endeavours, leaving the Art Banker heartbroken.

Photo Credit: SIFA

All this gives us a lot of food for thought but the production is let down by its wordy and heavy-handed libretto. Hardie has created what is essentially a science lecture that is masquerading as opera. The four actors neatly fall into two camps: two of them pro-ruthless scientific discrimination and the other two against this. Arguments about genetic modification and other scientific theories are bandied about with casual abandon. By the time we get to the third iteration of this debate, a lot of the momentum has been lost and there is little that sustains the narrative thread.

More fundamentally, one struggles to understand why Goya in particular is singled out as the apotheosis of creative genius. Surely any number of artists could have been the subject of this debate? Indeed, it would have helped if the paintings of Goya has been projected on the screen at seminal moments, giving us a greater emotional and visual link with the man.

Photo Credit: SIFA

On the technical side, there is very good use of lighting and projection. I particularly appreciated the aerial cameras which capture the performers from different angles and project these before the audience. Admittedly, the dizzying projections do tend to grow tedious after some time but they capture the idea of individuals being commoditised and give an haunting, modern gloss to the action on stage. There is also a shimmering symmetry in Ong's direction that makes for a powerful visual aesthetic.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra does a good job in bringing Nyman's soulful and jazzy score to life and giving a jaunty flavour to the production. Yet, the sensitive music and arresting technical flourishes cannot save what ultimately feels like a heavy-handed attempt to blur the boundaries between science and art. One always appreciates a fusion of styles but sometimes, too much colour fades into pure white noise.

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5


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