City Halls, Glasgow
It started with a blood-curdling chord that shattered the expectant silence. This was the opening of David Fennessy’s epic Conquest of the Useless, a dynamic 70-minute concert trilogy inspired by both Werner Herzog’s eccentric 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, and the process by which it was filmed as seen through American filmmaker Les Blank’s vivid documentary Burden of Dreams.
That the chord reeked of Verdi was no accident. Fitzcarraldo, played in the film by the volatile Klaus Kinski, is an opera-crazed obsessive (based on the real-life Irishman Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald) driven to construct an opera house in the Peruvian jungle, in the course of which he decides to haul a 320-ton steamship overland from one Amazonian river system to another. Caruso was his hero, whose recorded voice – singing bits of Rigoletto – feeds like a ghostly cipher through Fennessy’s opulent score.
Yet, as this first UK performance of the complete trilogy firmly demonstrated, Conquest of the Useless bears its own distinctive hallmark. Fennessy was fortunate to have the BBC SSO under Jack Sheen as the prime protagonists in delivering a work powered by individual thought and further animated by electronics (Fennessy on guitars along with computer performer Peter Dowling), Scots actor Brian Ferguson and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston. Caruso, himself, was symbolically represented by an old gramophone sited high in the choir stalls, spotlit, like a sacred altar.
Uppermost in Saturday’s performance was the driving intensity with which Fennessy expresses his fascination for Herzog’s iconic film in purely musical terms. The Verdi quotes – and others such as the poignant Bach chorale, Es ist genug, used by Alban Berg in his Violin Concerto – conjure up a deep-seated nostalgia, interwoven with the Glasgow-based composer’s edgy modernity to enshrine Fitzcarraldo’s unshakable obsessiveness.
Fennessy has lived with the creation of this music for much of the last decade. The Prologue dates back to 2013, performed then also by the SSO. In the context now of the two ensuing works – Caruso and “Gold is the sweat of the sun, silver are the tears of the moon” – its organic function is cemented. Sheen allowed the natural conflict between its Verdian pungency and exotic jungle shimmer (a sonic forest of guiros) to generate its own febrile electricity, harnessed by a magnificent slow-moving glissando that seemed to take forever to ascend from its subterranean origin.
It was the perfect set up for Caruso, nor was it long before another monumental crescendo paved the way for Fennessy’s evocative electric guitar, emerging as the voice of free expression, sometimes boldly improvisatory, sometimes intensely reflective.
It was in the final work, however, that we encountered the most persuasively visionary and dramatic music. A perambulating Brian Ferguson (using a stepladder to cross between balcony and stage level) recited words from Herzog’s diaries, some of them frustratingly overwhelmed by volcanic orchestral surges. Enter, too, Jennifer Johnston, whose translucent vocal purity added a magical, if transient, angelic descant. For in the end, it is the inventiveness of Fennessy’s orchestral writing – unrestrained by stylistic dogma – that seals the deal.
This kaleidoscopic summation, an unfettered Amazonian soundtrack, bears out the composer’s stated belief that the orchestra in Conquest of the Useless is “the embodiment of what could be the true central character of this whole trilogy – the jungle itself.”
Going by the screening of Les Blank’s documentary which, together with an ensuing panel discussion, prefaced this energising performance, Herzog may well have come to the same conclusion.