CLASSICAL MUSIC / The Angry Young Man and the sea

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The Independent Culture
THE ANGRY Young Men hit British music a generation later than British literature; and they included Mark-Anthony Turnage, whose glamorously abrasive sound world has been one of the most distinctive of recent years. His work is imagistic, provocative, street-credible and immediate. All of which explains why his latest orchestral score, Drowned Out, was so successful at its premiere in Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday.

The orchestra was the CBSO under Simon Rattle, and the piece Turnage's last in a series of commissions as the CBSO's Associate Composer. Its title derives from the book-length enlargement of the final moments of a drowning man in William Golding's Pincher Martin, and its tone is sombre - but with a clear shape that builds into a crisis of activity, discharges into silence, then thins down to lighter, soloistic textures for an almost pastoral peroration. Well-proportioned across 20 minutes, Drowned Out is linguistically eclectic (Britten, Messiaen, Miles Davis) with a vernacular substance that profiles the emblematic whine of the saxophone. Whether it takes him further than he's been already I'm not sure; but it rounds off a significant period in his creative life with something of culminatory stature.

Writing last Sunday about Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki at Wexford, I said it would be the highlight of the festival. And it is. Of the remaining operas this year, one is an interesting failure, the other an engaging romp but little more. The romp, Herold's Zampa, is what you'd get if you crossed Don Giovanni with The Pirates of Penzance: an opera comique about philandering buccaneers and vengeful statues whose melodramatic intensity, confounded by appalling spoken dialogue, encourages Tim Hopkins to stage it as caricature. It's a failure of nerve (Zampa is meant to be part-serious), but it is funny; and with naff-cute designs by Charles Edwards it comes off. As does the music: a heartening confection of gaudy tunes that require four good tenors to deliver them. Wexford's tenors are all good, and complemented by a gloriously full-toned American soprano, Mary Mills, as Camille. A bona fide Frenchman, Yves Abel, conducts. I defy anyone not to enjoy it.

Wexford's Barbiere di Siviglia is another matter. It is not the Rossini opera we all know but by Paisiello, one of the dozen or so other composers who set Beaumarchais to music. It predates Rossini by a quarter-century; it even predates Mozart's Figaro by four years; and to hear it is to realise where Mozart got his ideas for the Figaro finales. But Mozart and Rossini had a genius for comic timing. Paisiello didn't. As his score proceeds through all-too- even contours, you get the jokes but not the laughs. The orchestration comes in thin, flat colours; and Wexford's conductor, Carla Delfrate, fails to pull much life from them.

It's understandable that Lucy Bailey, the director, should have taken desperate measures. She steps beyond the narrative terms of the piece into a topographical reconstitution of its inner geography. The set and costumes (Simon Vincenzi) don't tell you what the characters do so much as what they are; and in Paisiello they are more brittle, more transparently motivated (by sex) and less sympathetic. So, as Bailey has it, Bartolo's house becomes an abstract study in bad-taste boudoir pink; Rosina becomes a Barbie doll chained to a silver heart-shaped bed; Figaro floats around her, stage-managing events in a stage-manager's T-shirt; and Bartolo's two pathetic servants (not in Rossini) are naked. Or, at least, surrogate naked (this is Catholic Ireland, remember) in body-stockings with stitched-on willies which are the talk of Wexford.

The intention, apparently, is to advertise their vulnerability. But, oh dear - if you're working at this level of symbolic abstraction you have to work hard to keep your audience with you; and although this production is rich in ideas, the audience wasn't with Lucy Bailey's drift at all. Nor were the cast, who lacked conviction and weren't, in any event, outstanding artists - with the possible exception of Mark Pedrotti, whose Figaro was vague of presence but strong of voice. I am convinced that Lucy Bailey is a talented director. This job didn't work. There'll be others.