Classical Music: Right-on turn-off

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The Independent Culture
Dawnpath - Cardiff Festival

That Seventies age of music- theatre, with its endless creation myths and court jesters and soldiers in fatigues, may seem mercifully remote now, but imagine what it would have been like if the genre had been invented in the age of political correctness. Nicola LeFanu's Dawnpath, which Cardiff Festival revived in the Sherman Arena on Thursday, might be its prototype. Two 'Amero-Indians' enact a barely perceptible creation 'story' in which it is the Woman who forces the Man - no names, of course, but at least not yet Person 1 and Person 2 - to confront the challenge of the dawning world outside his limited circle of hunting and gathering.

Quite prophetic for 1977, when Dawnpath was first done. But in other ways the piece is of its time. The usual five or six black- clad musicians, the tiny stage with no props and only a staircase for scenery (director Carmen Jakobi, designer Sarah Ashpole), the morose purple light gradually penetrated by a no less morose yellow (in music theatre even the sun is miserable), the two singers and one dancer, who, with some difficulty in this cramped, precipitous arena, has to represent the friendly deer that the Man, for no apparent reason, suddenly turns on and strangles. The humourlessness, the prim, Hampstead ethnicity, the absence of any psychological or dramatic motivation - all, alas, typify that period when no self-respecting composer would be seen dead under a proscenium arch or in any mode but the didactic ethnographic.

Nicola LeFanu talked with great freshness and vitality about her work. But where was the vitality in the music? In Navajo language, it seems, there is only one word for music, song and dance. One might take this as a positive sign. But it turns out to imply, for this composer, a lack of differentiation. In Dawnpath, nothing moves except the notes. The style is arabesque, floating, nebulous; response is localised in this or that felicitous gesture, of which, certainly, there are a number. Rhythm and metre I could not detect, which makes it unsurprising that the dancer, Irini Konidari, had her work cut out to suggest the animal force of nature.

Odaline de la Martinez, masterly chief Amazon of Cardiff's 'celebration of women in the arts', conducted a mostly skilful performance, well-played certainly, and sung with conviction, especially by the aptly-named baritone, James Meek. The soprano, Edith Pritchard, also did well considering that she came late to the role. And the few uneasy moments could be traced to her need to sing from a score - which, as a unique prop, provided an ironic commentary on the whole proceedings.

Final perf 8pm tonight Sherman Arena, Cardiff (0222 230451)