Classical: Waking up in a hospital corridor

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A Midsummer Night's Dream

Opera North

Louis Andriessen

Barbican, London

Spitalfields Winter Festival

Some opera companies fill their Christmas schedules with Bohemes and Fledermauses: anything to justify a spot of stage snow and some festive frocks. But Opera North, ever the maverick, has a new Midsummer Night's Dream. It opened on Thursday, just in time for the winter solstice. And it seems to be taking on a challenge - to give the piece as sterile, stark and spare a staging as possible without losing sight of the fact that Britten's opera is actually a comedy.

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, the two French directors who always work in tandem, set the whole thing in a painfully white corridor that looks like a hospital and comes with bits of internal plumbing that descend from the fly to cover Titania's night of love with Bottom. To see it is to think of Peter Brook's non-operatic Dream whose white-box set made theatre history 30 years ago. The show look back to a slightly earlier era, with designs that fix the action around the late 1950s and early 1960s when Britten wrote the score.

It's not particularly magical, or charming. And the fairy folk are more like prehistoric reptiles than the winsome things we know and love in Arthur Rackham. But then, Britten didn't want his fairies cute. He wanted streetwise adolescents. And he especially wanted an adolescent Puck, to duplicate with Oberon the kind of relationship that exists beween the boy and fisherman in Peter Grimes. Time and again, Britten was drawn to operatic expression of the potential for both love and danger when adults get close to children. It was the story of his own life. And you don't get it when producers cast their Puck too old.

This, alas, is what happens at Opera North where Puck becomes a demob- happy soldier - presumably in honour of the trumpet and drum motifs that accompany his every entrance. But the military element in those motifs is toy-cupboard stuff. You only have to compare it with the fanfares in the War Requiem to know that. Adult Pucks won't do.

But there are other things here that do very nicely, including a sharp socio-political touch at the end where the mechanicals wake up from a sleep of their own, and realise that the ducal guests don't care a jot about their dance. They stop the Bergamasque and stand, humilated, while the nobs make for the champagne. Then - the feelgood touch - the fairies comfort them. Puck throws a bouquet. Pretty obvious whose side this show is on.

Above all, though, it's on the side of the music, which is superbly handled by Opera North's music director Steven Sloane and well-played by the orchestra.Christopher Saunders' Flute is a joy. There's a promising Demetrius in Mark Stone. And a stunning Helena from Helen Williams: a young star of some magnitude who grows in strength and stature every time I hear her.

The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen is 60 this year and mellowing. For someone who made his reputation as a radical polemicist, composing scores that taught us noisy lessons about American imperialism or the powerlessness of art, he comes across these days as cosily avuncular. I guess that's being Dutch for you. And when he was talking from the platform at his 60th birthday concert at the Barbican last weekend, it was all very Dutch. Benignly erratic. Slightly confused. And apparently impervious to the irony that this concert was being given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Historically, Andriessen has been a scourge of symphony orchestras, denouncing them as 19th-century relics hostile to all things new. Back in the 1960s he got famous by disrupting concerts at the Concertgebouw and being forcibly removed from the premises. He said he'd never write for orchestra again, and hasn't. Not, at least with anything like conventional forces.

From overloaded brass textures weighted toward saxophones and trombones, brutal percussion, and the amplification levels of a night-club off the Essex Road, he has created a distinctive sound: a European, heavy-metal answer to American minimalism. It has won him cult status and loud disciples like Steve Martland. And the first piece on this Barbican programme was an example: a score called M is for Man, Music and Mozart, written in 1991 to accompany a TV film by Peter Greenaway.

Andriessen works a lot with Greenaway, most recently in a new music-theatre piece, Writing to Vermeer, which has just opened at the Netherlands Opera. M is for Man was their first joint-venture and it defines what they have to offer each other. Greenaway (whose film played at the Barbican alongside the music) brings an arcane, exotic, sexually suggestive formalism: naked bodies ritually engaged in an elaborate masque about the birth of humankind and culture. Andriessen brings the jerky, driven rhythms of Stravinskyan ballet processed and repackaged for the age of disco. It's his trademark style.

But the other piece in this birthday portrait-programme showed what he can do beyond disco-Stravinsky. It was the UK premiere of a long, slow, rather grand ensemble piece called De Tijd which meditates on the paradox of time as something that moves without apparent motion. Ostensibly it drifts through its considerable length in a narcotic calm, sustained by female voices in a soft chorale that runs unbroken and resistant to the punctuation of irregular, bell-like stabs of brass and percussion. A New Age lullaby, you think, and settle down to sleep. But beneath the skin of this calm is a shifting progression of chords that never get the harmonic resolution they demand. They strike your ear as endlessly unfinished business. And you don't sleep. On the contrary, you sit in gathering tension, waiting for some sense of pay-off.

It's a clever, mesmerising, fabulously coloured piece which has taken a long time to reach British audiences. Andriessen wrote De Tijd back in the 1980s. If we'd heard it then, we'd probably have never fixed him in our minds as a purveyor of brute noise.

Christmas always gets the Oxbridge choirs a-wassailing their way to London, and on Monday night the mixed-voice Trinity, Cambridge opened the Spitalfields Winter Festival with music that included a new commission from Jonathan Dove. I am the Day, a millennial carol for unaccompanied voices, was eclectically tuneful in much the way of Dove's Glyndebourne opera Flight, with an easy, fluent and approachable technique.

That, I daresay, is why he has also been commissioned to write the new, all-singing/ dancing people's version of the National Anthem, which premieres on New Year's Eve at the Dome. I haven't heard it, but the terms of the commission make me fear the worst. Well, maybe not the worst. They could have asked Cliff Richard.