Classical review: West, Collon, RPO, Cadogan Hall, London

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Ever since Bartok, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev hit their respective jackpots, composers have reserved the right to turn their ballets and operas into concert suites.

The suite which Tarik O’Regan has extrapolated from his chamber opera Heart of Darkness stands in this tradition, and one has to admire his persistence. Fired by the example of Orson Welles’s 20-minute radio play on Joseph Conrad’s novella, he and librettist Tom Phillips conceived the idea of this opera many years ago. They work-shopped it diligently and got their staged premiere at the Linbury in 2011, but as it still felt like a work in progress, a rethink seemed advisable.

Suite from Heart of Darkness for Narrator and Orchestra constitutes that rethink. With the aid of a new libretto, O’Regan has retained the overall structure of the plot while shifting elements of the musical content, but he still burdens it with a heavy literary subtext. He now likens this to a dream whose focus is on the aged Marlowe’s acknowledgment of his lifelong guilt about what he witnessed in Africa, and was complicit in; Conrad’s own guilt is also implied. The result amounts, in O’Regan’s view, to ‘a comment on empire-building’.

He explained all this, plus a great deal more – about the Thames and trade, colonialism and slavery – in a rambling preamble, before narrator Samuel West, conductor Nicholas Collon, and the Royal Philharmonic got down to business. Seven episodes had been filleted out of the story to create the suite’s seven movements; West’s job was to knit them together with telegrammatic snatches of description, action, and commentary.

Doing his best with a wonky microphone, West ratcheted up the tension as far as the words allowed, and with the orchestra coming in under his voice. But in this transfer from opera to concert hall the musical textures had been thickened into something like film music: they no longer had the purity of O’Regan’s original exercise in percussion, woodwind, strings, harp, and celeste. All that was missing to complete the impression of a creaky old Victorian entertainment was the addition of a magic lantern. Back once more to the drawing board? Don’t give up.

The evening’s (not inconsiderable) saving grace was the superb account which Collon and the RPO gave of Sibelius’s Second Symphony, but the programme as a whole – Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, composed contemporaneously with the Sibelius, was the other work - had a historical logic, rather than a musical one.

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