Liza Lim: Singing in Tongues review – visceral, confrontational and totally compelling

·2 min read

The first three of Liza Lim’s five operas to date are represented in this deeply impressive collection, together with her 2005 song-cycle for soprano and 15 instruments, Mother Tongue. Only one scene from the 2000 “ritual street opera in seven parts”, Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting) is included, but both The Oresteia from 1993 and The Navigator of 2008 are included complete. All of the works involve the brilliant Australian new-music ensemble Elision, with whom Lim has worked regularly since she and the group’s founder members were students together in Melbourne in the mid 1980s.

The libretto of The Oresteia was put together by Lim and the director Barrie Kosky from Aeschylus, Tony Harrison’s English translation of the plays and fragments of Sappho’s poetry. It’s never a linear retelling of the original drama, more an exploration of the roots of enmities that power it, as the protagonists – Orestes, Electra, Cassandra, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon – are summoned to relive their murderous hatreds in a series of what effectively are individual scenes. The vocal writing, and the instrumental parts that seem indissolubly fused with it, is visceral, confrontational, and totally compelling, and the work takes on an exceptional power and directness; it’s hard to believe that Lim was just 24 when she composed it.

Though the music in The Navigator is often just as vivid as in The Oresteia, it seems to me a less convincing work dramatically. The libretto by Patricia Sykes (who also wrote the texts that Lim sets in Mother Tongue, sung in the live recording here by Piia Komsi) incorporates the legends of Tristan and Isolde and The Mahabharata as well as Greek myths and ideas from Walter Benjamin, without referencing any of them explicitly, while the characters are given archetypal names – The Navigator, The Beloved, The Angel of History, and so on. Perhaps it might all come together convincingly enough on stage, but it seems a bit too allusive and unfocussed on disc, however fascinating from moment to moment the music is with which it is projected. Overall, though, the set is a superb demonstration of Lim’s originality as a music-theatre composer, and makes one want to hear her other stage works as soon as possible.

This week’s other pick

A Terrible Beauty on the Diatribe label showcases more than a dozen pieces performed by the Belfast-based Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble. As you would expect from such a compilation, the stylistic range is wide, from the delicate tracery of John Buckley’s Three Mobiles after Alexander Calder, the grand gestures of Iain McCurdy’s Found Sounds Lost and the sparkling sound world of Gráinne Mulvey’s Luca to the neo-expressionism of Frank Corcoran’s Nine Looks at Pierrot; there are no total duds here either.

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