Shell Shock: Nicholas Lens, Nick Cave and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
“Some arsehole”. The first two words of the opera “Shell Shock” set the tone. This is opera, Jim, but not as we know it. In the year that is just finishing the commemoration of the First World War, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui joined with composer Nicholas Lens and songwriter Nick Cave to create a surprising testimony to those that fought, died, deserted and waited.
I was expecting something darker. Speakers outside the grand Monnaie opera house in central Brussels blasted passers-by with the sounds of armies on the move. Inside, people settled in the lush gilded décor and watched a blank screen.
The lights dimmed. The orchestra struck up and the screen lifted to reveal a stark décor of makeshift crucifixes, sand bags and a black soldier stumbling towards the audience. “Some arsehole shouting at me in a language I don’t understand”.
Shell Shock at the opera
There were several stars tonight. Foremost must be Christopher Lens himself, and the superb Monnaie orchestra brilliantly conducted by Koen Kessels that handled the various mood and style changes with perfect ease. Sidi Cherkaoui’s dance troupe played full-on for the 100-minute show, striking a fine line between flash dancing and portrayal.
One of the weaker points, unfortunately, was the connection between the libretto and the orchestration, or between the words and the music if you will. Cave’s words are surprisingly dispassionate, often simply describing impressions rather than trying to get people to share them. There are exceptions, such as when a nurse repeats to a soldier that she is “Glad to be his nurse” a few times. It sounded like trite patriotism until she finally added, “rather than his mother, his wife or daughter”. Touché.
The words were often strangely phrased by Lens, with accents falling on weak words and a very thin unflattering melodic line overall for the singers. This contrasted sometimes starkly with the delicate sentiments evoked by the orchestra. The reference to shell shock only appeared in one of the cantos, the survivor.
The form of the work also distanced the listener to a degree. Opera is largely a dramatic form. But by choosing to use the structure of 12 self-standing “cantos”, Lens robbed the opera of an opportunity to build an overall structure that could have drawn the audience more emotionally into the story. I’m not sure why, but I couldn’t help comparing it unfavourably to the impact of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. Having said that, some elements worked brilliantly, such as an extended “Canto of the Deserters”.
The staging and choreography were constantly surprising throughout. Cherkaoui’s dancers played with props such as stretchers and plain white sheets in surprising ways.
There can be no doubt that “Shell Shock” is a visually stunning piece, with music to match.
The show was given absolutely rapturous applause, which suggests that I was in a small minority. But personally I felt something important was missing: genuine empathy with the characters being portrayed.
See also: Don Giovanni at the Monnaie