Divine Madness – Project Arts Centre – Review
By Diana Perez Garcia
Until the 16th of November
Starting with an almost completely bare stage, save for a grand piano tucked away in a darkened corner, lights lowered to mere twilight, we wait for Divine Madness to start. The stage remains empty for a few minutes until the silence is broken by a guttural exclamation emerging from the front row of seats. For a moment it sounds like the nervous fretting of a member of the audience before the start of the show, but other sounds quickly follow from the back of the auditorium. They are snippets of the human voice awakening to its potential and expressive range: we are surrounded by vibration, explosion, resonance, even grit. When this prelude reaches its end, a prolonged exhalation sounds like a wave washing away on the shore.
This orchestrated vocal warm-up is a fitting start to Divine Madness, creator and choreographer John Scott’s effort to “explore the physicality of the soprano in the context of a dance” and “her practice beyond the concert recital”. We have seen its equivalent in track and field competitions, with athletes stretching every muscle to hone them to a full range of power. Off scene, dancers all over the world flex their bodies to the minutest sinew before the performance.
Soprano Mairéad Buicke emerges from her front-row seat to walk to centre stage while singing Catalani’s moving aria Ebben? n’andro lontana. She is barefoot and wears a pair of dark leggings and a crimson sleeveless top, her nails and toenails painted a shade of fiery red, the only nod in her outfit to the rapturous emotional excesses of opera. She leaves a solitary microphone behind at the front of the stage and reaches its centre where she stands facing the audience, armed only with the arresting power of her voice. It is a rare moment, the ravaging turns of the aria barely contained by the small, almost intimate, auditorium. It simultaneously sketches the torrent of grief and the vulnerability of Catalani’s heroine as she faces exile.
When the singing finishes, Buicke approaches the microphone and recites the lyrics to the aria: she rolls her r’s and taps her t’s with forceful deliberation. This draws our attention to yet another challenge in opera, its multilingualism. The lyrics to Catalani’s aria are sung in Italian; later in the show we will also hear Dvorak’s Czech, Strauss’ German and Tchaikovsky’s Russian. Buicke savours every syllable of the rotund Italian words and they fill the auditorium.
In Divine Madness, Scott, a dancer and tenor, merges these two disciplines to show how bodies sing and voices dance, to paraphrase the composer and choreographer Meredith Monk. Buicke is joined on stage by dancers Conor Thomas Doherty, Magdalena Hylak, and Hannah Rogerson with Buicke joining them through the performance. Their first appearance is a vortex of frantic skipping, running, jerking and convulsing as they take turns to shout out words from the aria. Buicke weaves her own recitations with the aid of the microphone now held in her hand. She shakes its cable to make it vibrate like sound waves; it undulates like a dangerous snake threatening to trip up the dancers in their frenzy.
The dancers’ eruption represents an explosion of movement hardly ever seen in the context of an opera performance. Their bodies seem to become musical notes, bodily organs, emotional states, and narrative phases by turns, giving way to a multifaceted and unorthodox range of movement very much in contrast to the stilted cliché of grand opera. Given the extraordinary physical effort involved in her singing, it is a wonder that Buicke is able to join their choreography, sometimes as if her voice was a master puppeteer to their bodies. Magadalena Hylak and Hannah Rogerson offer impressively physical performances but are otherwise emotionally restrained. On his part, Conor Thomas Doherty demonstrates tremendous commitment to the piece in an intense physical and dramatic performance.
After its fiery and unpredictable start and as the show progresses, the choreography becomes more subdued and delicate and at times the bodies of the dancers are strewn on the ground, bringing an echo of the death that is never far from the lips of heroines in opera. The arias bring romantic heartbreak but also exile and even torture, as befits Scott’s interest in staging the connection of the personal and political in his work.
Divine Madness is highly original and exploratory, and it will require a spirit of curiosity and an open mind from its audiences. Every minute of the show is a reminder of the versatility, adaptability, resilience, discipline and strength of singers and dancers.
“Vissi d’arte”, “I lived for my art”, sings Buicke as Tosca. Divine Madness is proof that for an opera singer, Puccini’s line is true.
Choreography: John Scott
Soprano: Mairead Buicke
Dancers: Magdalena Hylak, Hannah
Rogerson, Conor Thomas Doherty
Pianist: Richard McGrath
Lighting and Design: Eric Wurtz