Classical: Huddersfield, centre of the musical universe

Simon Holt: `The Nightingale's To Blame'; `Eco-Pavan' Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Tan Dun: `Marco Polo' Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival ENO: `The Barber of Seville' Coliseum, WC2

It's an oddly, sometimes frighteningly random process, the way a place picks up particular associations. Dachau was a picturesque Bavarian town before the Nazis graced it with a concentration camp. Darmstadt was a quiet Rhineland kulturstadt until Boulez and Stockhausen annexed it as the world headquarters for the Fifties avant-garde. And Huddersfield ... well, Huddersfield was Huddersfield until a local academic, Richard Steinitz, had the crazy but (as it turned out) visionary idea of making it the home of a contemporary music festival. The beginnings, 21 years ago, were small. But the ideas were big and got progressively, bigger.

With the demise of the Almeida Festival in London, Huddersfield became the annual platform for new music in this country. And, though I suspect that many people in Huddersfield barely register what's happening around them, their town is now an international byword for all that's new and (sometimes) vital at the cutting edge of sonic art. At festival time, the world's leading composers arrive in this unlikely place by every train - heading straight for the thermal underwear department of Marks & Spencer - but none the less pleased to be there. And on an average day at Huddersfield's M&S this week, you'd have found any or all of the following: Arvo Part, Elliott Carter, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, George Crumb, Tan Dun, stocking up on long-johns and investigating blizzard-wear. The Pennine cold in late November always comes as a surprise to visitors.

But the festival got into its stride last weekend with some home produce: a new opera by Simon Holt called The Nightingale's to Blame, which was premiered by Opera North at Huddersfield's small but perfectly formed Lawrence Batley Theatre. Holt is a composer at that problematic in-between time of life: just 40 and accordingly no longer "promising" and not yet "venerable". It's the time when artists tend to feel forgotten. And Holt has been a quiet presence in British music for the past few years, although that's partly because he has been buried in his opera, which is chamber- scale (six singers, 16 instruments) but still his biggest work to date. It runs for 80 minutes without an interval, and the theme is an erotic comedy after Lorca, who has been the inspiration for Holt's music in the past.

At face value, it's a classic operatic farce, about an old man marrying a young woman and the trouble that ensues. But Lorca takes things further. His old man isn't quite the buffoon you expect, and there's a sexual charge here that makes the piece more like Ravel's Luheure Espagnol than Donizetti's Don Pasquale. In fact the old man triumphs, albeit perversely. Unable to fulfil his wife's desires, he encourages her promiscuous interest in a mystery admirer who turns out to be the old man himself, disguised. In the final scene, he sacrifices himself for love - literally, with a dagger in his heart. It's an unsettling ending. Very Spanish. Very Lorca.

As an opera, though, it fails because Holt doesn't make it live as theatre. He writes wonderfully for the instruments, with a refined ear for colour and texture. But the result is two-dimensional: a score for voices and ensemble rather than for narrative and action. And it doesn't feel as though there is any action, because the pace is so slow. It starts with a dull scene of Don Perlimplin, the old man, doing nothing much at the piano, and is enlarged into agonies of extended time by long, over-embellished vocal lines. That makes it a hard life for the singers, who at least go down fighting. Donald Maxwell and Fiona Kimm are real troupers as the Don and his maid. Patricia Rozario copes nicely with the switchback range of the writing for the young wife. And while I'm listing virtues, I should add Neil Irish's cartoon set and the conducting of Nicholas Kok. But with a clumsy staging by Martin Duncan, it still ends up as erotic comedy which is neither sexy nor funny. The only conclusion can be that Simon Holt is not, as many thought, a natural-born opera talent.

But, back on his home territory of chamber music, he fared better at Huddersfield with a new piece for piano and ensemble that relates to The Nightingale as a sort of satellite. The title, Eco- Pavan, sounds like a conservationist's lament. In fact, the Eco is a reference to imitative echoes, and although the music has the solemnity of a pavan, it doesn't have the duple-time structure of renaissance dance. Rather, it floats in space, announced by glacial piano chords that gradually gather round themselves the very particular instrumental sonorities of harp, bass flute, cimbalom, percussion, and a few strings (no violins). This is Holt on true form, with the darkly haunting beauty of a closet-Romantic. And as such, he was sympathetically served here by the pianist Rolf Hind with members of the London Sinfonietta.

The highlight of Huddersfield's opening weekend, though, was the UK premiere of Tan Dun's opera Marco Polo, given only in concert (too bad!) but still an arrestingly dramatic experience from the BBC Scottish SO under the baton of Dun himself. Tan Dun is the composer who hit the headlines last year with his splashily eclectic Symphony 1997, written for the handover of Hong Kong. He is indeed Chinese: born in 1957 and old enough to have done time in the rice fields, courtesy of the Cultural Revolution. But he now lives in America, and is absorbed in music that marries the processes of East and West - as was the late Toru Takemitsu. But where Takemitsu was delicately introspective, Dun is dazzlingly extrovert. Although the subject-matter of Marco Polo is inscrutably esoteric, it translates into music of broad immediacy: the sound equivalent of three-dimensional mah- jong, given a West End spin and hit tunes. Scored for large orchestra and chorus, with exotic extras like Tibetan horns and Beijing Opera Drum, it plays like the rules of a game. The characters represent Memory, Beings, Nature, or Shadows. The plot - if there is one - concerns three simultaneous journeys: physical, through space (from Italy to China); spiritual, through time (from the past to the future); musical, through cultures (European to Chinese). Oh, and Marco Polo is two people, Marco and Polo, who hitch up en route with Shakespeare, Kublai Khan and Dante, and are jointly loved by Water (as in drinking). The libretto is by Paul Griffiths and as clear as Huddersfield's November sky. But for all its obscurity and pretension, Marco Polo bears the stamp of an important work, extravagant but durable. Its relentless succession of self-contained incident keeps your ear alert. The juxtaposition of early-Britten choral writing, Mongolian overtone chant, Maoist melody and East Coast avant-garde - brutally punctuated by the small, metallic farts of Chinese circus gongs - is fascinating. And whatever Marco Polo meant, I loved it; though I didn't love the soloists Tan Dun had pulled in, who were mostly from America and not especially distinguished.

Back in London, Jonathan Miller's medical- interest Barber of Seville is still wonderfully funny after 10 years' service at ENO. It's only a pity that the new revival (staged by David Rich) doesn't deliver more musical value. The conducting (Mark Shanahan) is slow and insecure, and the cast are mainly young singers who haven't yet found the way into their roles. Christopher Maltman's Figaro, Toby Spence's Count and Claire Weston's Berta are all promising but not there yet. By contrast, Lesley Garrett knows exactly what to do with her first Rosina and I wish she didn't - although she has a nice trill and opens out to some delightful top notes. But there is a real star in this show, and it's Gordon Sandison, whose Bartolo doesn't deliver much in the way of sustained tone but is consummately well-done as a piece of theatre. Understated and scalpel-sharp, it's the most brilliant comic acting I've encountered in an opera for a long time.

`The Barber of Seville': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Tuesday & Thursday to 10 December, then returns in January 1999.

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