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Ample Fantasies in a Small Compartment

“We are not only one’s muses, but also one’s pornography”, says Stephen Plaice the libretto author of Luís Tinoco’s newest opera entitled “Paint Me”. The work, commissioned by Culturgest and staged by Rui Horta, had its world premiere performance on December the 17, 2010 in Lisbon.

The beginning is simple and intentionally blurred. When the public keeps filling the concert hall on the stage appears a young woman with an umbrella in her hand and headphones on (she is listening to a bel canto aria). It is raining (typical English weather), the woman is at a train station. She carries a brown paper parcel that could be a canvas. “The train now arriving at platform number 5 is the 15:12 for Canterbury calling at Tonbridge, Paddock Wood, Ashford International, Wye, Chilham and Canterbury…” A simple and repetitive marimba gesture announces the journey’s beginning…

21st Century “Canterbury Tales”

Stephen Plaice is a British writer, who works in film, theatre and opera. The “Paint Me” plot takes place in a train, which goes to Canterbury. The compartment, which according to the librettist constitutes “a kind of instant sociological laboratory” is a meeting place for 6 different personalities (a ticket guard, a young woman with a painting, a priest, two women with difficult pasts as well as a cynical and male chauvinist man), who have fantasies about their fellow passengers. Godffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, written at the end of the 14th century constituted the basis for the text, however Stephen Plaice’s libretto is a (post)modern revision of Chaucer’s work: “In «Paint Me» the travelers are also on the way to Canterbury, but their stories are not shared – they are imagined in the passengers’ minds. The story’s framework is a forced and «real» interaction between them, in the compartment’s interior.”

Stephen Plaice’s libretto has a genuine British quality – it speaks about our hidden and perverse side with a dose of irony and distance. Nevertheless the text has also more universal dimension, for whilst observing the characters we can take a good look and recognize ourselves. “When we chose a modern and urban lifestyle we live in a close proximity to persons of whom we know very little or nothing. We live in houses, apartments or rooms, which are next to spaces occupied by strangers, however there are no expectations that a community can be created”, explains Stephen Plaice. Solitude in the crowd of the cities, isolation, lack of communication between individuals, are all particularly current matters, especially in the time of globalization. Suffice it to recall the famous “Apartment Trilogy” by Roman Polanski (“Repulsion”, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tennant”), which thoroughly embraces the theme of alienation and madness as the consequence of the former. Polanski’s films are concentrated on the analysis of isolation of individuals in alien circumstances, whereas Sthepen Plaice’s, Rui Horta’s and Luís Tinoco’s “laboratory” is the confrontation of various individuals in a closed ambience of a train compartment. “In modern times, almost every journey takes place in silence and anonymously”, emphasizes Stephen Plaice. Therefore, in “Paint Me” there are two parallel dimensions, “the theatre of public behaviors”, in which one has to obey the rules of courtesy and kindness as well as “the secret theatre” constructed of indecent thoughts, fantasies, which are not for public absorption, but constitute…

…The elephant in the room.

“Paint Me” is the third dramatic work by Luís Tinoco – the composer himself classifies it as a chamber opera. On the musical level one can distinguish in it three dimensions: 1) train ambient music; 2) music of the fantasies; 3) a sonorous mixture of the two former types. “Apart from the orchestra I wanted to have another sonorous dimension, which is created by the sound design and some electronics elaborated in real time with the singers and the orchestra”, explains the composer. Luís Tinoco’s creation evokes John Adams’ post-minimal music not only in the harmonic structures and in the repetitiveness of certain motives (like the marimba musical gesture, which opens the train journey), but also in the “romantic” elaboration of the vocal parts, so characteristic in the American composer’s more recent works. In the opera’s musical language one can also find spoken parts (recalling a Singspiel…) and other allusions to the musical past such as Mozart’s quotation of “Le nozze di Figaro” and the virtuoso la Zaffetta’s aria from the opera “La Cortigiana di Santo Stefano”. Luís Tinoco included in the opera a variety of distinct musical means. How does his music coexist with the opera’s other elements?

On the one hand, as I emphasized above, the opera’s plot, even though ironic and full of sudden twists in the style of Monty Python or Andy Kaufman (yes, yes the American comic…), has also a strong and “heavier” impact. On the other hand, Rui Horta’s staging is based on minimalist, almost cinematic ideas – the domination of white colour, a small, remotely commanded train circulating around the stage and giving rhythm to the journey, “futuristic” costumes, which evoke one of Hannah-Barbera’s animations (“The Jetsons”), interactive visualizations, among others. Nevertheless Luís Tinoco’s music does not seem to realize entirely the dramaturgical principles of Stephen Plaice’s text, which has as a basis the contradiction between the world of conventional behaviors in a train compartment and the world of personal fantasies, intimate and shameful, a truly British elephant in the room. In the music this fundamental contrast is only slightly emphasized, although its impact could have been much stronger. Perhaps, in spite of the variety of means, the music is still too uniform? Perhaps, the composer did not have the courage to enter more impetuously into the game between the courtesy, the fantasies and the public? Perhaps, Luís Tinoco feared to reveal “the elephant in the room”? “After all, a theatre, in which the spectator follows the spectacle is also a compartment, a place in which we can share fantasies about strangers in a legitimate form”, says Stephen Plaice.

Silent Journeys

Despite my feeling of dissatisfaction, the Plaice – Horta – Tinoco opera (this order is not random) remains important in a broader context. The music is an attempt to synthesize various styles in one integral piece, making references to the musical past, music of today, concrete and electronic music and finally popular culture. The idea to traverse different genres, create mixtures and collages, make references to other artforms in search for new values in music, has occupied the creative time of many contemporary composers. However, the opera’s value remains at most in the multidimensional libretto, which in a quite direct manner exposes the hypocrisy of (post)modern times. If on one hand we are being “bombarded” with the ideals and mythology of openness to others, made easy thanks to contemporary means of communication, on the other, our daily journeys are carried out in silence. The 14th century travelers to Canterbury entertained themselves with conversation and by listening to tales whilst the crowds of (post)modern travelers in public transport, trains or planes do not manage come out of their private fantasies. It seems that it is safer to dream with a person, which one observes in the window’s reflection than create a real interaction. Why?

“Paint Me”, is also about the necessity of giving names to things, creating conventions, not only in life but also in art. Nevertheless, the latter, as our fantasies, does not fit into the limits, which we intend to establish. “Adjectives are where we start when we stand before a work of art. Each image contains its opposite reaction. We like, we hate in equal faction. One man’s meat’s another’s poison. One man’s art’s another’s boredom”, sing the performers in choir when confronted with a painting in an imaginary gallery. Nevertheless, they conclude: “Paint me, paint me, the beautiful appeals, but it is the painter the painter’s brush reveals.” It seems that the act of painting is in fact an implicit desire for contact and appreciation.

Small Courtesies at the End

At the end let me make some compliments in order to maintain a balance between the opera’s various features, not only positive and neutral but also negative ones. The first goes to the musicians conducted by charismatic Joana Carneiro. My second regard is directed to the singers, who not only had to play different roles but also presented great flexibility, since the opera, apart from sung and spoken parts also includes elementary choreography. “I can say with satisfaction that the six singers are from young generation. We will have the possibility to show values, in my opinion, very consistent and promising“, underlines Luís Tinoco.  Finally, my third compliment goes to black humour and surreal elements, which although not always properly emphasized either by the music or the staging, were present during the whole spectacle and not only on the stage, since the fantasies also occupied the minds of the listeners…

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