It is not only complete works that are presented at The Tête à Tête Opera Festival (Riverside Studios, London) but it also offers the opportunity to works in progress to get aired publicly and David Knotts’ An Eye for an Eye: A Wild Evening with the Papin Sisters is one of those incomplete works that was presented. This was the first performance of the first seven scenes. Knotts is a British composer, a finalist in the first BBC Young Musician of the Year Composer competition, and has led a fruitful career writing for leading ensembles and soloists. His output includes operas, notably his Stormlight for W11 Opera. His sound has a strong harmonic drive, rich with melodic invention, a sensitivity to timbre and fine control of rhythm to make him an ideal composer for theatre works.
Set in 1933 in a bourgeois house in Le Mans, the opera opens with the two maids Christine and Lea preparing for a party. Knotts’ incisive ostinati creates a sense of real purpose and energy in the opening scene, while capturing something of the comic nature of the interaction between one maid and the less effective other. Jessica Walker (who also wrote the libretto) sings with a bright, vibrant sound, contrasting well with the rich lower tones of Rebecca de Pont Davies. Both are clearly compelling actors as well as singers, and they do much to bring these comic yet mad maids to life. With Knotts at the piano, playing with colour and precision, this was an engaging opening to what should be an exciting work. Even within the opening one hears melodic fragments that attach to the characters and ideas presented; I can imagine the complete work will be pleasing to hear as one could chart the motifs as they progress with the story.
The Madame of the house (Rebecca de Pont Davies) becomes fascinated by her new electric bell, the use of which frustrates the maids, particularly as Madame keeps barking increasingly complex orders at the maids. Even the bell is captured with bright chords in the high tessitura of the piano, and the ensueing chanson the Madame sings expressing her what could be described as love for the new electric bell is harmonically rich and nostalgic of 1930s song. The Madame’s daughter Genevieve (Jessica Walker) longs to get rid of one of the maids, and is also subject to her mother’s constant reminders of her ‘ugliness’. A wonderful comic moment is when Madame sings of how ugly her daughter is, and how she will make the party a masked ball to ensure none will see Genevieve’s face. All along, Genevieve lingers behind her mother, hearing of her party plans and how much her mother recoils at her appearance. Knotts’ music captured the energy of the action with precision, a broad range of textures from single lines to denser chords yet throughout it remained consistent, an extended palette that at once create humour and at another melancholy. He brings something of the cabaret in his writing that suited the performers characters, both of which seem ideally cast for these roles. His writing is nothing but ideal for the story and I look forward to seeing the complete the opera, particularly as there is a murder to come.
The stage was effectively devised to be minimal yet it never felt lacking – Hazel Gould and Angel Exit Theatre collaborators in bringing this piece of music theatre to life with only a hanging cloth and a few props. The nature of the studio and the festival means the audience are free to interact with the performers and composers, sharing their experiences and engaging with the dialogue of what can be possible with opera of the future.
For more info and a great video of the performance, visit: http://www.tete-a-tete.org.uk/a-wild-evening-with-the-papin-sisters
Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman