A welcome reissue of Michael Nyman's almost-grand opera | Gramophone
Gramophone, Sept. 2011 : Aug 5th, 2011
First performed in Spain in 2000 then extensively revised for a second “premiere” in Karlsruhe in 2002, Facing Goya still ranks as Nyman’s most ambitious operatic work to date. Divided into four acts, lasting well over two hours, featuring five singers and scored for a large ensemble (effectively an expanded version of the Michael Nyman Band), it comes close to “grand” opera in design, which perhaps explains why the work has been overshadowed by the composer’s more approachable chamber operas.
Described by Nyman as an “opera of ideas”, Facing Goya reconstructs a scenario wherein the Spanish painter Francesco Goya’s skull, which is found missing when his remains are exhumed from the cemetery at La Chartreuse some 60 years after his death, is rediscovered and its DNA extracted in order to clone the artist. The opera’s historical sweep is wide, ranging from a 19th-century craniometry lab in Act 1, via 1930s national socialist Germany in Act 2, to a present-day bio-tech company’s laboratory in Acts 3 and 4.
The figure of Goya is somewhat peripheral at times, fading into the background when pros and cons of craniometry, eugenics, the Aryan ideal, degenerate art or genetic mutation are argued among the opera’s characters. But the rather disparate nature of the plot lies in sharp contrast to Nyman’s own direct and visceral musical language and the opera’s success lies in the manner in which the composer weaves a number of memorable musical themes around the central character of the Art Banker. Nyman’s trademark propulsive rhythmic bass-lines pepper the score from time to time, such as “The size of the brain” in Act 1, but there are also moments of tender reflection here, notably in the final, poignant aria “Forgive me”, where Goya is left alone on his hands and knees, desperately trying to put the pieces of his own skull back together.
A reissue of the Warner Classics recording originally released in 2002, with excellent performances by Hilary Summers as the Art Banker and Omar Ebrahim as Goya himself, Facing Goya is a fascinating example of post-opera at the turn of the 21st century.
—Pwyll ap Sion