The devastating events of 9/11 re-framed many of the ways people viewed the world. And the global aftershock of that horribly sunny morning – of people fleeing smoke rolling through downtown New York as the twin towers collapsed – continues to be felt today, rippling into foreign policy and national identity.
Caught on TV screens and phones, it also introduced a horrible kind of movie-style spectacle to terrorist attacks: a nightmarish blurring of big-budget summer blockbuster and real-life catastrophe. Previously, the sight of planes crashing into buildings could have been fodder for a studio tent-pole action thriller.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, many of the films to have dealt with 9/11 in the nearly 14 years since have absorbed the events into their medium. Narratives have been carved through the chaos and the uniform of the New York fire service has become an immediately recognisable symbol of bravery and heroism.
In part, this serves our aching need to salvage something, anything, from the wholesale loss of that day – to find that glimmer of humanity. But when those tropes become too fixed, when they simply become the shortest route to eliciting a reaction, they no longer enlighten or engage: they feel empty.
And this is the fault-line that runs through Between Worlds, the new 9/11-inspired opera by Tansy Davies, with libretto by Nick Drake. Co-commissioned by ENO and the Barbican, Deborah Warner’s split-level production gives us spectacle, heart-tugging personal narratives and candles in the darkness. By giving us everything we expect, it succumbs to the worst fault: cliché.
There’s both too much and too little in the stories of the fictional Twin Tower workers and visitors spot-lit in the show – an excess of tragic irony in the young woman who talks of calling in sick, but doesn’t, and the mother who fails to say goodbye to her son that morning because they’ve argued. It feels manipulative.
The characters rarely rise beyond stock roots as Michael Levine’s set – a metal walkway suspended over a chorus of panicking spectators – shakes and lights crash down in simulation of the impact caused by the first plane. Drake’s libretto is leaden-footed as each person calls their loved ones. When these scenes are sad, it’s mainly because of what we bring to the stage.
There are stronger aspects. Davies’s score is atmospheric and effective. From the start, it’s a jittery sign of the tragedy ahead – a continuously discordant note in the innocuous early scenes. The urgent, busy, endless chatter of the city – distilled into the whispering figure of tightly suited man sitting above the rest – is counterpointed by a perilous fragility.
And, yet, it’s not clear why this is an opera. It feels more like a film we’ve seen before, just minus the cinema screen. The form is rarely used to shine a new light on events, to find a way of making us see 9/11 as we did when it happened, before it was absorbed into a narrative and given back to us. Some elements – like the fleeting appearance of some firemen – feel as though they’re there simply because they’re expected.
The talented ensemble give committed performances and there’s an undeniably visceral power in the scale of the staging and choreography. A mass of fluttering sheets of paper and a dancer suspended in space evoke the harrowing footage of mass death ripping open daily life played on loop at the time. But those who died on 9/11 deserve more than the stereotypes here.