Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime at Lincoln Center Festival

David Salvage

To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, great works of art create or abolish genres; perfect works do both simultaneously. Brian Ferneyhough and his librettist Charles Bernstein have created what they call a "thought opera" based on the ideas of Benjamin, and the man himself would probably have recognized it for what it is: a great work of art.

From the grotesquely grazioso opening, through the many arresting a cappella choral passages, to the serene spatialized electronics of the conclusion, "Shadowtime" proves far more adept at creating contrast and sustaining tension than Ferneyhough’s other major work performed in New York this season, "Carceri d’Invenzione." The phrasing is more relaxed, and the complexity – while never yielding – never grows fatiguing: the music breaths and flows and doesn’t suffocate the ears.

Structured into six continuous scenes, the opera, after poignantly capturing the frenzied last days of Benjamin’s life, charts a conceptual descent from the "Doctrine of Similarity" – Benjamin’s conjecture that the sounds of language reflect the structure of the cosmos – to the shattering irreconcilability of historical time and "Jetztzeit" ("now time"). Accompanying Benjamin’s avatar, or "shadow," is an unnamed Lecturer, who spices the journey with whimsical and often nonsensical discourses on metaphysics. He is like an eccentric showy Virgil partnering Benjamin’s earnest Dante through Hell – a Virgil, by the way, who must also play the piano very well and be able to totally command the stage. In the role, Nicolas Hodges absolutely steals the show.

The production is a delicious echo-chamber of images: oversized mouths flash on a screen only to reappear later as suspended cut-outs; a man in silhouette undresses and dresses again – a sequence Benjamin soon echoes; through the entire second scene, Benjamin holds a mask in front of his face, and, later, giant mask-like faces – Karl Marx, Pope Pius XII, Hitler among others – descend from the rafters as characters portray them on stage. In the penultimate scene, as the Lecturer takes us in his absurd way through the crumbling of time, the set-pieces begin to crowd the stage chaotically, unfiltered light streams from the wings, scrolls of text that once hung triumphantly now crumple to the floor, and one is overcome by the powerful feeling that something important is coming to a sad, irreversible end.

What exactly, I don’t really know. "Shadowtime" may have flown over my head, but it didn’t fly over my heart. It’s quite a feat for an artist to command attention with the nearly incomprehensible: people are quick to ignore and disregard what they don’t understand. (Me included.) But the audience seemed pretty attentive last night, and, even though a few people did leave during the show, one regrets the incredibly limited run allotted "Shadowtime" at the Lincoln Center Festival: two performances just aren’t enough for a work this rich, this intricate, and this fascinating.