Teen dreams of a musical wunderkind

PROMS Opera North Royal Albert Hall, London / BBC Radio 3

If I remember rightly, adolescent sexual imaginings balance very precisely between libidinous, not to say lewd fantasy, and the most chaste idealisation of the object of sexual desire. For most of us, it remains fantasy, abiding or not, but Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Wonder Boy of German music in the years around the First World War, had the talent to turn it into opera. Mind you, with Puccini and Strauss (both admirers of Korngold's prodigious talent) dominating European stages, the young man had plenty of models for his febrile musico-dramatic style.

His one-act opera Violanta, written in 1914 when Korngold was 17, lives and breathes the slightly fetid air of late Late Romanticism. Strings shudder and shimmer, the brass heaves and pants, their fevers fanned by the harp, and by the piano placed at the heart of the orchestra. And then there are the voices, out-Straussing Strauss with the clash of heart-tugging lyricism and terrifying high notes. Hans Muller's libretto sets the action in 15th-century Venice, an exotic location to add to the hothouse atmosphere. A woman vows revenge on her sister's seducer, but then falls for him herself, finally sacrificing herself on her husband's dagger.

Overblown? Of course, but it's easy to get carried along on the emotional surge. Opera North's Proms presentation on Thursday was first billed as being semi-staged but, in the event, it was a concert performance, with only the merest hint of interplay to denote dramatic action. With no surtitles to help out, the audience had to follow the story by way of the translation in the programme, a task made trickier by singing that often blurred both vowels and consonants.

In the end, though, it worked. Conducting the English Northern Philharmonia for the last time as Opera North's music director, Paul Daniel struck the right balance between indulging the music, and moving it briskly along. The heart of the opera is a long, long duet between Violanta and the vile seducer Alfonso, who turns out to be quite a nice chap. The duet lasts nearly half an hour, too long in a 75-minute opera, but it's a pleasing showpiece.

Dramatically and vocally, Violanta is Salome's little sister. Janice Cairns invested the role with tremendous dramatic presence, but scooped at too many notes, some of which were quite harsh. Hans Aschenbach's Alfonso had a lovely warmth in the middle of the range, even if the top of the voice couldn't cope with Korngold's inordinate demands. There again, few could. Jonathan Summers played the husband with due gravitas, and smaller roles were all well taken. At times all the voices were swallowed in the orchestral maelstrom, more a sign of Korngold's immaturity than of vocal shortcomings.

The evening began with Stravinsky's Petrushka. On the podium, Daniel himself seemed to be taking the role of the puppet Petrushka, rocking back and forth as if pulled by strings in the Albert Hall ceiling. The acoustic blurred some of the staccato rhythms, and not all the wind soloists were quite on top of the game, but it was a winning performance, its magnetic qualities attested to by the depth of the few silences Stravinsky allows his orchestra.

Paul Daniel will be missed at Opera North. English National Opera can look forward to fireworks when he arrives there in the autumn.

Nick Kimberley

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