BWW Review: DENIS & KATYA, Southbank Centre
"Don't you think it feels voyeuristic?"/ "I think the audience will be expecting to see it...."
On 15 November, 2016, Russian teenagers Katya Vlasova and Denis Muravyov ran away from home and barricaded themselves inside a cabin with whisky, guns and ammunition. After firing on family and at police, the two 15-year-olds found themselves in a stand-off with Special Forces, which only ended when the men stormed the building. Both teenagers were subsequently found dead. The whole sequence of events was live-streamed by the pair on Periscope, turning them into a Romeo and Juliet or Bonnie and Clyde for the internet age.
The story's appeal for composer Philip Venables and librettist Ted Huffman is obvious, but there's nothing remotely predictable about its treatment. Scored for just two voices, four cellos and some digital kit, Denis & Katya is a lean, provocative, even playful affair - as far from the operatic tradition of tragic romance as it would be possible to imagine: an opera not about a story but about storytelling itself, drawing us in then pushing us away in a slickly choreographed meta-theatrical dance.
We never actually meet the young lovers. Instead, the story emerges out of the mouths of peripheral figures - teachers, friends, medics, a journalist. All roles are taken by the two singers (mezzo Emily Edmonds and baritone Johnny Herford), who switch characters and languages with dizzying speed, hurling emotion, impressions, opinions and reactions at us in a sequence of increasingly short episodes. Amplifying these is the inane chatter and abuse of the internet, projected up onto a giant screen behind the action: "Show us your tits before you die"; "They got what they deserved".
We are encouraged to watch ourselves watching them, then - as text conversations between Huffman and Venables are projected up onto the screen - to watch the artists themselves as they wrestle with the ethics and aesthetics of representation. Should they show us the video? What about the kids' photos? Can they use verbatim quotes? Real names?
If this all sounds a bit tricksy, a bit too much like artistic navel-gazing, it doesn't feel like it. Driven by the four cellos, one at each corner of the action in Huffman's taut staging, the score propels, assaults, consoles. Nervy little patterns of semiquavers break up the monologues and duets, ramping up the tension. Textures are surprisingly rich and varied, exploiting the cello's lyrical, voice-like quality as well as its percussive attack, setting the instruments in conflict as well as dialogue, using them to create soundscapes as well as more linear music.
If we miss anything in the collage-like musical fragments, it's development, sustained lines. But then comes an unexpected coda. After the rush and clamour of events, Huffman and Venables ask us to stand back and reflect. The music changes pace; an extended, passacaglia-like coda, baroque in its purity and clarity, underpins vocal writing suddenly meditative and long-breathed.
With such lean performing forces, quality counts, and we get it in spades in Edmonds' molasses-and-honey mezzo and Herford's taut, expressive baritone. Strong singing-actors both, they are the engine of the piece, supported, challenged and framed by the London Sinfonietta's Tim Gill, Adrian Bradbury, Zoe Martlew and Joely Koos.
Concise, considered and deeply economical, Denis & Katya is that most vital of things - a genuinely stageable, tourable, affordable contemporary opera. Substance may be sexy, but in the current climate it's practicality that'll ensure longevity, keep the art form going when subsidy dries up. Always ahead of the game, the ever-enterprising Music Theatre Wales have shown us how it's done here. It won't be long, I'm sure, before others follow suit.