The opera opens impressively, with a passage in which a cello melody and vibraphone chords vividly evoke the damp, greyish-brown light of austerity-era London... In the second act, however, Nyman gets into his stride, as he evokes both the atmosphere of daily life and the popular music which helped brighten it up. [There are] convincingly managed modulations of mood and style, and moments of gureilla poignancy. All three singers turn in commendable performances, and one has to admire Graham-Hall for his realisation of two sound-poems conjuring a sneeze and a doodlebug.
Barry Witherden, Gramophone, 6/1/2005
Nyman has a reputation as one of the hard men of minimalism, but this opera presents and altogether gentler face ... There are some good comic scenes, such as when Schwitters does his rendition of a Doodlebug in flight, but the tone is mostly nostalgic (Nyman himself was raised in post-war London), with Nyman's usual ensemble of clarinets, saxophones and strings softened by the addition of a vibraphone. At one point there's even an evocation of a genteel Lyons Corner House thé dansant ... the vocal performances, particularly from the 13-year-old William Sheldon as Michael, are every bit as good as they seemed at the time [of the original Almeida Opera Production]. And unusually for a contemporary opera, the words are clearly audible. The playing of Nyman's own ensemble is tenderly expressive.
Ivan Hewett, BBC Music Magazine, 6/1/2005
Michael Nyman launches his own CD label with his latest opera to be staged in Britain. This recording of Man and Boy: Dada is taken from performances at last year's Almeida Opera, though the work began life in Karlsruhe, Germany, where it formed part of a trilogy of Nyman's stage works premiered there. It was impressive on stage, and retains much of its charm, humour and pathos on disc.
John Graham-Hall's performance as Schwitters is so compelling, both in his attempts to udnerstand the ways of the English and in the virtuoso moments when he delivers a couple of his Dadaist sound poems. William Sheldon does well as the boy, and Vivian Tierney takes on a whole range of characters, including Michael's mother, a BBC interviewer and a bus conductor.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 9/16/2005
Should one try to mend a broken world, or instead try to love its chaotic shards? Is there an approach that might subsume both possibilities? These are the questions that seem to undergird Michael Nyman’s remarkable recent opers, first staged in Germany in 2004, then presented in England by the Almeida Opera, and now released on disc in a recording of the Almeida’s acclaimed production. The work brings together three characters whose lives have been damaged by the Second World War: a mother who has lost her husband, her son who has lost his father and whose fascination with collecting is his way of trying to restore order, and Kurt who has lost everything and embraces chaos. Their lonely interactions – with the world, with each other – dramatise this philosophical dilemma and make it profoundly human: palpably so in the wonderfully expressive, beautifully sung performances by John Graham-Hall, Vivien Tierney and (as the boy) William Sheldon.
The opera presents an imaginary episode in the life of the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, best remembered for his collages and junk sculptures. After the Nazis banned his work as ‘degenerate’, Schwitters fled to Norway, then to Britain, where he was interned for more than a year; during some of his final years he lived in London, in poverty. ‘The waste of the world becomes my art’, he said: an approach for which he coined the word Merz, noting that after the war ‘everything was in ruins anyway, and something new had to be won from these shards. That is Merz. I painted, nailed, glued, wrote and experienced the world… .’
The ‘waste of the world’ also has some significance for Nyman and his excellent librettist Michael Hastings, both of whom had collected bus tickets in the post-war years. In fact, the character of the boy is modelled on Nyman; the link to Schwitters stems from the composer’s discovery, in 2001, that bus tickets were essential to the artist’s ‘found iconography’, and that in his collages of 1944 Schwitters used London bus tickets that were identical to the ones Nyman had himself begun collecting a few years later.
Contrary to what one might expect, the opera is not a collage of found musical objects: except for a single tango, there are no direct quotations. Though much of the music is buoyant, sometimes joyous, even jazzily euphoric, an air of melancholy pervades the opera. The music is accessible without being infantile: allusive, subtly referential and intelligently crafted, it subversively belongs to, rather than spurns, a long Western musical tradition. It’s also endlessly diverse, and filled with surprise and rhythmic intrigue. And it works closely with the libretto, evoking, remembering, and adding to the changing moments of the drama’s unfolding.
As the characters slowly ‘discover’ each other, the encounters between Kurt and the boy, and Kurt and the boy’s mother, are touching – sometimes deeply so. (Kurt’s ungainly wooing of the mother, and her bemused and prevaricating response, is just one of the opera’s many memorably accomplished moments.) The characterisations are strong; they’re achieved through vocal lines that are lyrically expressive, yet that rely on the most economical means. And Kurt, through what he says and does, comes to embody the principles of his Merz art – which makes for extra poignancy when his modernist outlook leads to some alienating but dramatically powerful misunderstandings. There is humour, too: for example in the satirised BBC interview, in Kurt’s ‘sneeze’ poem, and later in his more outrageous ‘Doodlebug’ song.
The writing for the band bursts with energy, in part because Nyman has scored for the ensemble with expert knowledge of the colours and hues it can produce. From its line-up of two violins, two cellos, double bass, two oboes, clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano and alto sax, bassoon, percussion, piano and keyboard, her has drawn timbres and textures that are variously both bright and dark, translucent and think, but always clean, crisp, firm edged, dry and reedy. The band’s playing is precise and authoritative.
With, moreover, a recording that is excellent, and a booklet that offers both the entire libretto and some useful notes, this release is a real delight. I recommend it strongly.
Christopher Ballantine, International Record Review, 12/1/2005