For those in peril by the sea She hold us with her glittering ear Whatever you do, don't shoot it down!

OPERA The Albatross Spitalfields Market Opera
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Diana Burrell has made no secret of her love for the windswept East Anglian fenland of her childhood, and her music has frequently evoked its wind, sea and sky. For her first opera, she chose Susan Hill's novel The Albatross, which tells how a disturbed and lonely outsider in a close- knit fishing community is eventually driven to murder. Shades of Peter Grimes are made more ominous by Hill's own close association with Britten.

As its belated premiere on Thursday made clear, however, Burrell's Albatross successfully steers clear of Britten's influence to conjure up an independent world. The opera was actually composed between 1984 and 1986, and is now receiving its first performances thanks to Trinity College of Music. It shows a command not only of atmosphere but also of the more elusive operatic arts.

The opera's two acts are presented in Stephen Langridge's imaginative production, with designs by Kyung-Hee Lee, via a cunningly adaptable basic set, well lit by Paul Russell. Though neither libretto nor score suggests this, Duncan, the retarded anti-hero, is played by two singers: one grimly real, the other representing his inner aspirations. Though initially disconcerting, this sometimes worked to great effect, as well as practical advantage.

Ted, the fisherman - Duncan's hero and helper, who drowns in a lifeboat accident - is, like the two Duncans, a tenor; even given a performance with more gravitas than that managed here, this would seem a mistake. The vocal lines for Hilda, his vindictive, wheelchair-bound mother, are peppered with hysterical high notes, making the words inaudible and the audience sometimes laugh. But Burrell's music, like Langridge's production, is generally highly economical, scoring most strongly when she gives free rein to her imagination to conjure mood or enliven character with a single gesture.

There are marvellous orchestral moments suggesting, if comparisons must be made, the fantasy of Tippett or the gloomy textural undertows of Penderecki. And while the opening stages of Act 2, beginning with an interminable bassoon solo, betray the composer's lack of operatic experience, both the ensuing scene of Ted's funeral - complete with hymn-tune cleverly overlaid by action and reaction - and the concluding murder are handled with real flair and sophistication.

The Trinity singers and orchestra, under the secure guidance of Christopher Fifield, cope very well with Burrell's demands. Amid a predominantly male line-up, I must single out James Geer and Stephen Brown as the two Duncans, Amanda Palmer as the mother, Julian Smith as Ted and Stephen Bowen as one of the other fishermen. As though this wasn't sufficient, the college precedes The Albatross with a very decent attempt on Vaughan Williams's rather uninspiring Riders to the Sea, a further study in the lethal effect of the elements on a small community, again resourcefully directed by Langridge. A long but worthwhile evening.

7.30pm tonight, Spitalfields Market Opera, 4/5 Lamb Street, London E1. Booking: 0171-377 1362

Comments