Classical Music / Notes from Suffolk

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NOT MANY operas have a sense of place beyond the token. Until British Rail starts advertising Lucia di Lammermoor weekend breaks I won't believe that Donizetti does any more for tourism in Scotland than Wagner - courtesy of Tristan und Isolde - does for Cornwall. But if one place in Britain has a real presence in the opera repertory, it's the shingle beaches, marsh and mud-flats around Aldeburgh where Peter Grimes mended his nets, where the frightfully middle-class children in The Little Sweep played at social engineering, and where Albert Herring discovered sin.

For English opera-lovers, every feature of this east-coast landscape has its tune; I wish I could report some significant additions with the world premiere of Nicola Lefanu's The Wildman, which opened this year's Aldeburgh Festival and is the latest Suffolk opera. Based on the 12th- century legend of the Orford merman, it tells the story of a questionably human creature fished out of the sea. As his role is largely mute, the focus of the piece becomes the Suffolk coast, whose atmospheric qualities certainly register more effectively than any of the characters. Lefanu has a keen ear for colour: with subtle resourcefulness she paints in sound the mist-enveloped bleakness of the coastal marsh, and creates a picture that bears comparison with Peter Warlock's magically desolate The Curlew.

But alas, these flat and marshy contours make for equally flat theatre. The librettist, Kevin Crossley-Holland, doesn't give the story enough shape or the characters enough substance. As the cast of six mostly take double roles, with one role-switch pointedly made before the audience's eyes, they feel less like characters than like anonymous voices clothed in temporary personality: an interesting aesthetic issue, not so interesting dramatically. Apart from occasional moments when the score echoes the conventional structures of opera (including a rather beautiful approximation of a love duet between the wildman and a young girl) there isn't much for the singers to run with. Which is a shame, because the cast is good, and well conducted by Nicholas Cleobury. Rolling around in 12th-century Marks & Spencer's underpants, Gwion Thomas attempts to place his howling wildman in the great tradition of modern operatic mad scenes (the madwoman in Curlew River, Peter Grimes, King George in Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs) but has to stretch too few wordless ideas across too long a timespan. As wildness goes, it ends up rather tame.

The festival revived next morning, though, with a chamber programme at the Jubilee Hall to mark Nicholas Maw's 60th birthday. Maw is an expatriate who lives in America, and whose visibility and audibility in this country has suffered as a result. His reputation here still hangs on stories of how, in the 1960s, scores like Scenes and Arias burst on an unsuspecting audience and proclaimed a major talent - with the implication that it never quite developed. But the fact is that we just don't hear enough of his later music to know. So it was a pleasure to be reacquainted with his 1980s American folk-song settings (Brittenesque fields of limited experiment, designed to stimulate the ear but keep faith with the tune) and the continuing series of solo instrumental works he calls Personae. A sort of diary in music. That said, the programme's highlight was the First String Quartet - music of formidably sustained strength, formidably played by the Sorrell Quartet - and, yes, it's from the 1960s. But as someone with a vivid memory of Maw's impressive Piano Trio premiered not so many years ago at Bath, I promise you that he can still fulfil the expectations of these grand traditional forms, and with authority.

The other composer profiled in Aldeburgh's opening week was the Finn Magnus Lindberg, whose tumultuous orchestral score Aura - a vast, muscular but somehow benevolent assault on the acoustic capabilities of Snape Maltings - had an unforgettable UK premiere from the BBCSO under Oliver Knussen. Now in his late 30s, Lindberg is a force to be reckoned with in European music, and Aura is one of his most telling scores to date: a richly envisaged spectacle in sound that combines glamour with substance and maintains its impact over a long duration. When it finished, the look of sublime exhaustion on the faces of the audience suggested we'd all been through a night of heavy but extremely satisfying sex.

There's no sex, perish the thought, in Britten's Spring Symphony, which Knussen and the BBCSO also gave at Snape. But there is a rude, rumbustious, earthy innocence - Britten's reinvigorating take on English Pastoral - and Knussen caught it beautifully. Far better than John Eliot Gardiner and the Philharmonia, who did the same piece at the Royal Festival Hall a week ago and got it wrong from start to finish. Gardiner, in his period- informed forensic way, tried to clean it up: a mucking out of the cow- shed that left a technically immaculate but sterile piece of work. Knussen, who knows better, served it muck and all, with an endearing blowsiness that blossomed in the brick-red warmth of the Maltings and squeezed tears from my eyes. The Spring Symphony is a piece that needs to be given and received with love. Oliver Knussen clearly loves it; that makes two of us.

The biennial Cardiff Singer of the World competition started in a tinsel- glamour way 12 years ago, and still takes place on a stage that looks as though it's waiting to welcome Shirley Bassey. But by their fruits shall ye know them; and with past prize-winners such as Karita Mattila, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel, Cardiff Singer has matured into one of the most prominent performance competitions in existence. An event where careers are well and truly forged.

At the time of writing the 1995 final hasn't happened: you can see it on television tonight. But having spent the whole week in Cardiff as part of the BBC commentary team and heard all 25 semi-finalists in viva voce, I'd say it will hang on perceptions of what a "Singer of the World" should be. The judges - who include Joan Sutherland and Ileana Cotrubas - largely represent the world of opera; but their decisions through the heats have eschewed big, belt-it-to-the-gallery voices in favour of more rounded recital refinement. Had there been an audience prize it would have gone to a Chilean tenor who thought he was Pavarotti, sang "Nessun dorma", and brought the house down. But he offered no lieder, was clearly unsuited to recital work, and didn't get through. Nor did an impressive but flashy American baritone, Earle Patriarco, or the big, dark, tree- trunk-solid baritone of Ashley Holland from England (an embryonic Bryn Terfel with a real future ahead of him).

Of the five finalists you'll see tonight, my personal favourite has been Brett Polegato, a light lyric baritone perfect for Pelleas or Billy Budd. But there's also an enchanting Swedish mezzo poised to be the next Ann Murray, and a Russian soprano of awesome quality with pristine top Es. I'm hazarding no guesses.

`Cardiff Singer of the World': BBC2, tonight 6-8.30pm.