CLASSICAL: FIRST NIGHT

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The Garden, Queen Elizabeth Hall

It's always good to hear a UK opera premiere, especially when the opera is of the quality of senior Israeli composer Joseph Tal's The Garden, staged in the Queen Elizabeth Hall tomorrow, from Thameside Opera, as part of the 9th London International Jewish Music Festival.

A distinguished Modernist, Tal was born in Poland in 1910. He spent his early years studying in Berlin but was forced to flee to Palestine in 1934. What ensued was an eclectic style built on a mix of Germanic tradition and exile at the same time. In recent decades Tal's reputation has soared again in Germany, though British performances of his music have been thin on the ground.

As a result, this is eagerly anticipated - and by the still energetic- sounding Tal himself, too.

"The Garden worked well at its premiere," the 88-year-old composer reflects from his home in Jerusalem. "It was commissioned for the Berlin Opera, which has two auditoria: a large one and a studio theatre. I have composed operas for full forces before, so here I decided to try a chamber opera. With my librettist, Israel Eliraz, we decided to take a wry look at the most archetypal story of all - the Biblical myth of Eden to give it a contemporary slant."

The Garden, which has just two singers, concerns a young couple in crisis. They return to Eden for a solution, but what they thought might be paradise isn't, for along comes the serpent (played by an actor) to rear his ugly head.

"There are no easy answers is the message," says Tal, "as the Edenic myth shows us. We must live and learn from our mistakes, make the most of what we have, move forwards and not back."

As to another potential allegorical element, Tal muses: "It was poignant for me that The Garden was premiered in Berlin. In the 1930s this was the capital of the world: forward-thinking and exciting. At the same time, there was this immense menace in the air. You could say that, as a Jew, paradise was very soon not paradise after all... Yet my opera is deliberately open-ended - that's the joy of working with myth."

Though The Garden's plot might be populist, it's musical idiom isn't. "I'm still an enfant terrible," says Tal, "And The Garden is one of my quirkier works. I employ a wind-based pit band, and they throw up some abrasive textures. Still, there's a sort of lyricism, too. I very much look forward to coming to London to hear it."

And so should anyone interested in intriguing contemporary opera at its best.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) tomorrow, 5pm

Duncan Hadfield

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