Fresh from winning an RPS Award in November, Tansy Davies’s chamber opera Cave is now available to stream on the London Sinfonietta's new online channel. Premiered in 2018, in the vast warehouse space of The Printworks, London, Cave was staged by the London Sinfonietta in association with the Royal Opera.
Furthering Davies' collaboration with the writer Nick Drake, this 60-minute work follows a grieving father’s quest for survival and renewal, in a world plagued by environmental disaster. Desperate to connect one last time with his daughter, a man – sung by Mark Padmore – enters a dark cave, triggering a journey into an underworld of spirits. A world that is given voice through Elaine Mitchener. Lucy Bailey directs.
Key to this opera’s success is the inspired pairing of two remarkable – and hugely contrasting – vocal talents. A lyric tenor is paired with an experimental vocalist whose contribution is a thrilling mixture of the fully notated and the wildly improvisatory. Sometimes the singers are worlds apart, elsewhere they loosely echo one another and, in some of the opera’s most poignant moments, their voices are melded together, in a strange alloy. The sheer range of vocal writing in the piece is astonishing: from pure-tone chants, winding cantabile icaros, and trilling birdsong imitations, to cries of anguish, guttural moans, and a series of terrifying cawing noises barked through a megaphone. Both singers shake rattles whilst singing, and the mezzo plays bass drum in one of the opera’s several outbursts of wild shamanic energy.
A pivotal work in Davies’s evolution as a composer, Cave unites a new-found spaciousness, and harmonic airiness with the looping grooves that have long driven her music. Across eight scenes, six instrumentalists create a richly alluring, glittering soundworld, prominently flecked with harp. At key moments the players take on solo roles: a horn rides the natural harmonics in broad upward surges, the clarinet duets in the stratosphere with the mezzo’s twittering vocalisations, and later a violin joins her in a folksy, lilting lullaby. Everything is couched in a vast, slow-moving cave of electronic sound (based on Davies’s darkly lustrous string orchestra work Dune of Footprints) which provides the beguiling harmonies underpinning the drama.
‘Drake’s libretto is powerfully resonant, a poem rather than a plot and clearly very deeply felt… a shimmeringly atmospheric soundscape… What one is left with is often beautiful in sound, a threnody always haunting and unsettling in implication.’
The Telegraph (Rupert Christiansen), 21 June 2018
‘Mitchener pushed towards an improvisational, at times almost shamanic utterance that threatened to stretch the boundaries of bel canto to breaking point…’
The Evening Standard (Nick Kimberley), 15 June 2018
‘Davies and Drake have an ineluctable taste for the epic… [A] sensuous, layered score, full of tender woodwind drones, plucked harp and elegiac strings, combined with vivid electronics… full of strange powers.’
The Observer (Fiona Maddocks), 1 July 2018