Bonesong / Unknown Position

Misdirected sexual attraction is the plate of the day from the Cambridge University Opera Society. With two servings of bizarre but well-conceived new writing, the audience are satiated even without dessert.The two chamber operas are quite distinct, so I’ll digest them separately. First was Unknown Position, about a woman who falls in love with a chair. This curt description does not do the work justice – it is a sincere portrayal of this woman’s frustration and release which was played incredibly convincingly. In three parts: we meet a couple who break up after returning from Tesco; then come the confessions of the seat-lover; and finally her ex tells us of other people who are sexually attracted to inanimate objects. This structure is lacking in overall shape, and the final aria drifted in such a way that the audience didn’t know if it had ended. The opening sequence was weakest – the contrast between the naturalistic libretto and the formalistic performance was comic rather than dramatically innovative. Gwilym Bowen’s stooped performance showed a lack of acting polish, and he rarely lifted his eye-line above the floor of the stage. Louise Kemeny, however, showed great comfort on stage and her aria to the chair was subtly but convincingly sexualised. She showed impressive voice control as she interacted with her wooden lover – even on her back.Bonesong, which followed, is a compelling, disturbing and brilliant ‘study in bloodlust’, with a colour palette of deepest black and red. The three singers showed remarkable conviction, and Bowen dealt much better with his character in Bonesong – his physicality more suited to a psycho killer than a jilted lover. The moody lighting successfully created a dark atmosphere, but sometimes faces were lost to such an extent that mouths could not be seen moving. When the gloom lifts and we are treated to blinding white light bouncing off the butcher’s curtain, the horror movie feel is at its strongest and most compelling. Once more the highlight was Kemeny, this time for her beautifully entranced blood-bath – moving even through the gore.The music to both operas was composed by Kate Whitley, mixed with Joe Snape’s electronics in Bonesong. While occasionally leaning towards noisy bluster, the score gives us examples of exquisitely engaging atonal music, in particular during the chair aria. Snape’s found sounds, comprising electronically manipulated ripping and creaking of body parts (presumably non-human…), are simultaneously gross and engrossing.Both works make the audience feel complicit in acts of depravity, following the long operatic tradition of finding beauty in the darkness. Please don’t hold me responsible if you see this show and are of a nervous disposition... pleasant dreams, and bon appétit.

Reviews by James Robert Ball

Leicester Square Theatre

De Profundis

★★★★

Another Way

★★★

Solstice

★★★

The Walls

★★★

The Blurb

Two new chamber operas, two five-star reviews. Bonesong: a twisted fairy tale with live electronics and video installation. Unknown Position: a woman in love with a chair. 'Impressive, sung with flawless command' (Varsity). www.cuos.org.uk