About Picture a Day Like This

Tuesday 10th October 2023

John Brancy in Picture a Day Like This. Photo: Camilla Greenwell
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At the end of last week, I went to see Picture a Day Like This, the fourth and latest collaboration between composer George Benjamin and writer Martin Crimp, which premiered at Aix-en-Provence’s Théâtre du Jeu de Paume in July and then enjoyed a run at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio. Unlike the fierceness of their medieval operas, namely Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence, it is, with its short fable form and simple directness, more like their first creation Into the Little Hill (2006). The plot has a moving immediacy: a mother cannot accept the death of her infant son. Postponing his cremation, she listens to local women who tell her that if she can bring them the button from the sleeve of someone truly happy before the day is over her child will return to life. So she goes on a quest and meets two lovers, an artisan who makes buttons, a famous composer and then a collector. Finally the mother finds a magic garden, kept by Zabelle, who is clearly happy. But does she even exist? The piece is an episodic meditation on the pursuit of happiness in our age, a time when social media is obsessed with images of the good life. It is a study of endurance and the stages of grief, of the profound reality of loss. With its allusion to Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”, it sketches in a fable-like way the vanity of the world, and grounds us in the Woman’s deep feelings. Benjamin’s music conveys the sense of enchantment in its gracefully measured vocal lines, which fit perfectly with Crimp’s crystalline text, all beautifully played by the ROH small orchestra under the baton of Corinna Niemeyer. The London production has two new cast members: Ema Nikolovska is the Woman and undertakes her journey with a calm grace which is occasionally rattled by painful thoughts, while Jacquelyn Stucker as the miraculous Zabelle helps to create the atmosphere of the magical garden, designed as a kind of aquatic wonderland by Hicham Berrada’s video. The three other singers repeat their roles from Aix: Beate Mordal is one of the Lovers and the Composer, Cameron Shahbazi is the other Lover and Composer’s Assistant, and John Brancy is the Artisan and Collector. Directed and designed by Daniel Jeanneteau and Marie-Christine Soma, the story, which Crimp created from his reading of a European parable, a romance about Alexander the Great and a Buddhist tale, shines in its simplicity and grace, and its finally irrepressible ambiguity.

© Aleks Sierz

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