CLASSICAL MUSIC / A Fludde of tears at Aldeburgh's festival of Britten

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the luxuries of great art is that its appeal legitimises sentiment; and with that assurance I admit I watched the Aldeburgh Festival's new Noye's Fludde through the sluice of tears it always triggers in Pavlovian response to all those bugles rattling raw and desperate memories of Sunday scout parades and all those children (alias giraffes, orang-utans and dromedaries) filing two by two into the ark. The simple- heartedness of Britten's score is the simplicity of genius: it's Mozartian in the way it strikes directly at that faltering residue of pre-pubertal innocence we carry with us to the grave. And of course the ultimate power of Noye's Fludde is that however moist-eyed the effect, the piece itself is so robust, so practical, so perfectly unsentimental. Hence the success of this staging by Lucy Bailey, which was all those things and neatly circumnavigated the fact that BMW's sponsorship wasn't enough to give the children animal masks, by dressing them in 'Lion' or 'Tiger' T-shirts. Makeshift but ingenious.

The idea was that these were media children, creating their flood in a TV studio (the stage of Snape Maltings stripped bare) and fragmenting the action into the scattered units of scenery and business that suffice for close-in camera shots. The Ark, accordingly, was spread in bits across the stage, and the flood itself dispensed with standard cardboard waves in favour of small boys in sou'westers running amok with buckets of water. As an exercise in breaking with a tradition of staging so established it aspires to liturgy, it worked well. Steuart Bedford conducted; the audience participation was predictably forthright; and it was good to have an 'authentic' Aldeburgh voice, John Shirley-Quirk, as Noah.

All it lacked was a decent procession - a real loss in that Noye's Fludde is a community piece and needs to feel rooted in the audience: it doesn't really belong in a concert hall - and children of the calibre Britten could count on in the Fifties and Sixties. But then, you can't blame Aldeburgh for collapsing standards of musical education.

The good news at Aldeburgh this year was that the festival went into profit, and three cheers for that. But the impecunity of recent years has forced the festival to rely more and more on young performers; and although that can be a bonus - as it was last Sunday when the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra gave a racily exhilarating performance of Mahlers's 1st Symphony that came, every note, from the heart - it's more equivocal in opera. Long gone are the days when Aldeburgh staged fully professional productions. Instead, it relies on students from the Britten-Pears School, which is a fine resource with good young voices but not always developed personalities; and it was personality deficiency that made Handel's Tamerlano at Snape a test of endurance. Vocally, there was no problem, with a smoothly substantial and very promising young counter-tenor, Simon Clulow, in the title role, and strong support from tenor Haig Hartmann (Bajazet) and mezzo Elizabeth Turnbull (Irene). But as theatre it was reticent, even allowing for the limitations of semi-staging. Tamerlano is a tyrant emperor, not a prefect in a minor public school; and like everyone else on stage, he cried out for some direction. As it was, the task of injecting drama into the piece fell to the Britten-Pears Orchestra: students again, but more dynamic than the singers and conducted briskly by Roy Goodman.

Garsington Opera eased this week into what has become its house speciality, Haydn, and proved once again that although Haydn's stage sense was questionable, he understood the theatre well enough to write for it with credibility - as you might expect from someone who during the 1780s conducted 1,034 opera performances at Esterhaza. The problem with the Haydn operas is that they only begin to work in the arcadian intimacy of a setting that approximates to how it was at Esterhaza: a pedigree interbreeding of professionalism with domesticity. And that's exactly how it is at Garsington, complete with genially eccentric, erudite and very much hands-on proprietors in Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams.

L'Incontro Improvviso is their fifth Haydn production, and it's done by Stephen Medcalf, whose understated wit and judicious surgery on the libretto have turned a potentially thin piece into a perfectly viable one. The story is stock 18th-century Viennese orientalism: an abortive escape from the harem, like Mozart's Die Entfuhrung, identical to Gluck's La Rencontre imprevue, and steered abruptly towards its happy ending by an unfathomable change of heart on the part of the Sultan. To see it is to recognise the genius of Mozart. But I liked the way Medcalf distanced its nonsense by playing it as an Esterhaza entertainment (footmen dressing up as dervishes), and I liked even more his presiding visual imagery of fantasy staircases, on wheels, going nowhere. Just like the piece.

On the way to nowhere, though, it passes through some charming numbers - most obviously a female trio in Act I - and Wasfi Kani is an agreeably didactic sort of conductor who guides your ear to what really counts in the score. She also has some decent voices, led by Eirian Davies as the Konstanze- esque prisoner of the harem and Thomas Randle as her surrogate Belmonte.

But one of the persistent lessons of Garsington is that no singer really shines in the open air; and Randle sounded so much richer in tone when I heard him the very next night in the Spitalfields Festival that it could have been a different voice. It was the closing concert in the festival, with a neatly interwoven package of British music, ancient and modern: Purcell's Chacony arranged by Britten, Britten's Lachrymae after Dowland, and the premiere of a commission from John Buller called Mr Purcell's Maggot.

The Buller piece was where Randle came in, along with mixed chorus and orchestra (conducted by Mark Elder), to sing a text drawn from Dryden and Dante that describes a journey through a forest: by implication a circular journey that returns, Eliot-like, to the bleakness of its beginning but with some fragment of wisdom gathered on the way that shifts the ultimate perspective. The circularity allows Buller to frame his score with outer material derived from Purcell's sound-picture of the frozen wood in King Arthur (like all post-minimally adjusted Purcell, it reminds the ear of Michael Nyman) but plunging down to the bottom pitches of the low woodwind for a rugged, grainy central section which, if you heard Baxxai at ENO, you would more readily recognise as Buller's work.

Impressively austere, it turned out not to be as long as the players had reckoned; so they played it twice - and very strikingly it made more sense the second time around. Up to a point you would expect that, as your ear retraced its way through unfamiliar sounds. But this was more a matter of performance quality. As a composer in the audience said to me, it seemed to be another case of first performance equalling first acquaintance; and if that's true, there are hard financial reasons why new music doesn't get enough rehearsal time. But this experience suggests a possible solution. Concert managements please note.

Garsington: 0865 361636, to Sun 10 July.

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