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Opera on William Blake Destroyed by Its Own Radicalism

Bethlehem Hospital: William Blake in Hell, Opera by Huib Emmer and Ken Hollings, performed by Theatre Group ‘Hollandia,’ under the supervision of Johan Simons and Lucas Vis. Psychiatric Centre ‘Vogelenzang’ Bennebroek. Performances through 25th of October.

The task that Huib Emmer and Ken Hollings have set themselves in their opera Bethlehem Hospital is not a small one. The starting-point was the work and character of the English visionary poet and graphic artist William Blake. The problem raised is ethical, and deals with the human soul as an intersection of lofty and crude instincts. The events take place in the madhouse where Blake, according to a fictitious story, is supposed to have spent the last thirty years of his life.

It was predictable that the result would stick in the throat. That it has turned so unpalatable is a disappointment, nevertheless.

The nicest thing one can say about Bethlehem Hospital is that the piece is destroyed by its own radicalism. The granite-like idiom of composer Emmer, the juxtaposition of speech and song, the decision to put the performance into the hands of a theatre group, and even the choice to perform the opera “on location”—in the chapel begin page 91 | back to top of the Psychiatric Centre Vogelenzang—all this bespeaks a dislike of halfheartedness.

Bethlehem Hospital has little in common with a traditional opera, but for one thing. The piece ends with a death scene. That takes up the entire third act and is deadly in all respects. Until that moment Emmer’s music is still fairly captivating. To be sure, this is due more to abstract variables like a diverse lay-out and delicately balanced sound contrasts, than to a profusion of ideas or theatrical drive. His two-part counterpoint is masterful, but that alone does not make an opera. In the final act—which, as opposed to the other two, has been entirely through-composed—his rigid, modular treatment of chords, rhythms, and tones runs aground completely.

It goes without saying that the librettist Hollings shares the guilt in this. It is asking a little too much to fill an entire act with internal memories, images, and reflections that are taken from Blake and embedded in the text. Wagner could handle that, but Emmer cannot.

The players and musicians are not to blame. Charles van Tassel and David Barron, initially playing an insane surgeon and a pyromaniac, then the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, and finally a split Blake, heroically work their way through their interminable lyrics. Anne Haenen, cast as Blake’s wife, comes a little less into her own. And, conducted by Lucas Vis, the orchestra, an ensemble for the occasion, realize the percussionary building block score with iron consistency.

It is a pity that director Johan Simons, stuck with this forbidding work, has not been able to capture its uncompromising spirit and has resorted to vehement movements and effects that are sometimes inventive but just as often ludicrous. Actors box each other’s ears with bouquets, the two prophets have false beards that reach the ground, and there is even a head that explodes. The performance would not have been saved by a drastic stylization, but it would have been made a lot more enjoyable.

The designers, on the other hand, have understood: they have put up a set dominated by straight lines, made from glass, metal, and stone. In front is a transparent square column with a half-naked man, a prisoner condemned to death, inside. He is the only figure with a personality, as appears when he opens his mouth halfway through the piece. This may be a slightly painful judgment for an opera that lasts over two hours, but its essence lies in that one oppressive scene—the only one, a ten-minute soliloquy.

(Originally published in De Volkskrant.)

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