Manchester International Festival, Manchester

Classical review: The Michelangelo Sonnets - the nightclub angel and the janitor

An unusual recital in a haunted former mission hall supplies Shostakovich and Bach with a mop and bucket

Dmitri Shostakovich was no stranger to decay. Assaulted by cancer, polio and heart disease, he set 11 poems by the Renaissance titan Michelangelo Buonarotti for bass voice and piano in the summer of 1974. The work synthesised the stained glass colours of Mussorgsky and the dying falls of Mahler and bridged the furious anti-death theatre of Shostakovich’s own 14th Symphony and the wry goodbye of his Viola Sonata. A year later, the composer was dead.

Peter Sellars’ staging of the Michelangelo Sonnets, with Eric Owens and the elfin organist Cameron Carpenter, pairs Shostakovich’s songs with Bach’s cantata “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” in the dusty splendour of Manchester’s Albert Hall, unseen for 60 years and now midway through restoration. James Ingalls’ lighting scheme is spartan, the props limited to a mop, a bucket, a bin and a dust-sheet, the use of silence between movements provocatively stretched. But for the sequence of still photographs projected on the screen behind the performers – shots of abandoned properties in America’s Rust Belt and tender close-ups of Owens’ skull, hands, ear, heavy torso and greying beard – we could be intruding on a moment of complete privacy.

Foregrounded on the organ bench, his feet and hands conjuring a strange facsimile of Shostakovich and Bach’s instrumentation, Carpenter might be an angel en route to a nightclub, Owens a janitor. Bach believed in an afterlife. Shostakovich did not. What links the two works here is their focus on duty: the ache of physical labour, the carrying of a real or metaphorical cross.

Carpenter is a sensitive musician – almost too sensitive as he glosses the pipe organ’s habitual blurt with an artful swirl of stops. As the mop becomes a cross and the dust-sheet is turned into a block of marble and a winding sheet, Owens’ voice rings out like that of a preacher, tireless and majestic, heavy as polished oak. The former mission hall’s resident poltergeist Reverend Collier, whose ghost was reported to be vexed by the transformation of the downstairs library into a bar, did not disrupt the premiere.

The tragédie lyrique is a thing apart from opera seria, its scalding ricochet from blithe dance to complex recitative closer in tone to Monteverdi than to Handel. Jean-Philippe Rameau was pushing 50 before he wrote his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, an example of tragédie lyrique. Along with a tempest and a chain of pretty dances for lovesick shepherds, sailors and boisterous huntsmen, he devised a series of soundworlds for guilt, terror and shame, brilliant and blisteringly dissonant. The furore over his harmonies would last for a decade.

Conducted by the man who restored Rameau to prominence, William Christie, Jonathan Kent’s Glyndebourne production focuses on spectacle. The Prologue takes place in a giant fridge (designs by Paul Brown), where Arcadians in white fake fur shiver under the chaste dictates of Diana (Katherine Watson) until Cupid (Ana Quintans) bursts out of an egg to defrost them. Hades is the greasy back of the fridge, the Fates (Mathias Vidal, Aimery Lefèvre, Callum Thorpe) cartoon spiders, provoking laughter in a scene where we should share the horror of Stéphane Degout’s Theseus.

In the modular domestic space of Act III, Ed Lyon’s handsome, sincere Hippolyte mopes over Christiane Karg’s sweet-voiced, earnest Aricie in a teenager’s bedroom, while Sarah Connolly’s Phaedra prowls below, her singing shapely and idiomatic. For all the fun with a salad crisper and an aquarium, the gawky keening of William Lyons’ musette, the sobbing bass violins and fragrant flutes of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the athleticism of Ashley Page’s choreography, the gore of slaughtered deer and the suavity of the ensemble singing, the electric shock of Rameau’s radical harmonies has been lost to cuteness, and a queen’s incestuous desire reduced to a hot flush from a Pedro Almodovar film.

Kent has achieved the improbable in making David McVicar’s scarlet- spangled Medea for ENO seem restrained by comparison.

‘Michelangelo Sonnets’ ends tonight ( ‘Hippolyte et Aricie’ to 18 Aug (glyndebourne. com)

NEXT WEEK Anna Picard encounters  Verdi’s Macbeth, in south London

Critic’s choice

Rising star Toby Purser conducts Messager’s Fortunio in Daniel Slater’s production for Grange Park Opera, Northington, Hampshire (Wed and Sat). Violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Steven Osborne contrast works by Prokofiev and Arvo Pärt in their City  of London Festival  recital, Goldsmiths’ Hall, London (Tues).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas