Two from the heart

OPERA: World premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Twice Through the Heart / The Country of the Blind Aldeburgh Festival
Writing an opera seems to be like steering a liner: changing directions is a slow process. It took courage, then, for Mark-Anthony Turnage to alter his plan to make an opera from Jackie Kay's poem-sequence Twice Through the Heart. Now a dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano, it opened the 50th Aldeburgh Festival on Friday. In the programme, Turnage says he "started and abandoned it, did other pieces, then came back to it" and, in truth, the piece wears the scars of its difficult birth.

Since it tells the story of a woman who murders her violent husband, we can't expect easeful exuberance, but here the voice struggles to find a pitch between bel canto and expressionist torture, leaving the orchestra to provide colour. Fortunately, Turnage is a virtuoso when it comes to instruments, and his 16-piece ensemble is as imaginatively coloured as a full orchestra, from the brass-heavy first interlude to the aching string figure that provides a draining climax. At that point, Turnage's dramatic sense is at its most acute, offering both painful release and the dull realisation that nothing has been resolved.

A 30-minute solo sing makes huge demands, and it's not surprising that Sally Burgess (for whom Turnage wrote the piece) had the score on a stand before her. Not that she seemed to need it. Perhaps it was more dramatic prop than safety net. Turning the pages without looking at them, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, putting her coat on, taking it off again, Burgess cut a distraught and isolated figure, but the voice strained to find specific expression in the sharp angles and steep slides Turnage provided. Perhaps the extra nuances will emerge in later performance.

Turnage is not, of course, the only contemporary composer working to find a vocabulary for the voice that matches instrumental possibilities. He succeeded much better in the work that accompanied the scena, a 45-minute chamber opera from HG Wells's story The Country of the Blind (both works developed through ENO's Contemporary Opera Studio). Given that Heart was to have been a full-length work, it's easy to imagine that the opera was written in a hurry, allowing no time for soul-searching.

That seems to have freed, or at least focused, Turnage's imagination, and his articulation of Clare Venables' text is more varied, more natural than his response to Kay's poetry. It helps that Emma Jenkins's staging, in Conor Murphy's designs, is so imaginative. The singers' movements are superbly choreographed and, as they sit precariously on tiny perches 20 feet above the stage, there is a real sense of danger, and the exhilaration that accompanies it. A strange love duet, sweet and sentimental, seems to come from another piece entirely, but the work has pace and point. As the proverbial one-eyed man, Thomas Randle is vocally and physically athletic, but the most imposing singing comes from Keel Watson's Elder, majestically draped in a pewter-coloured robe.

In both works, Nicholas Kok's conducting gives voices and instruments ample room without sacrificing detail or momentum.

Further perfs: Sunday, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh (01728 453543); 3 and 5 July, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) Nick Kimberley