High fives and strobes

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THERE were two productions of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in London this week, but only one carried a health warning. "Strobe lighting will be used during tonight's performance", we were informed before Opera Factory's gig at the QEH. In the hall's foyer, roaming bands of teenagers greeted the news with high fives and whoops of delight.

Opera Factory's commitment "to divesting opera of its grand and elitist image" is not enough in itself to guarantee support, but the quality of their productions is, and Curlew River, the first part of their double bill, is a model production of Britten. It requires delicate handling. Based on a Japanese Noh drama, the story tells of a mother searching for her child. As she crosses the Curlew River she learns that here, a year ago to the day, her boy died. In Britten's version the mother is a "madwoman", sung by a man. In 1964 at the premiere there was concern among the Aldeburgh set that the sight of Peter Pears in drag might cause everyone to crack up. Hearing Nigel Robson sing the part today, what strikes one is how Pears managed the part in the first place - Robson's voice, with its expansive, generous timbre, is so far from Pears's reedy inwardness. Mad scenes in opera can too often be the cue to shut the eyes and pray. In this production Robson's expression and gesture are never out of place. At the end of the piece the dead child's spirit rises to greet its mother, and the audience staggered punch-drunk towards the interval refreshments.

The strobes came after the interval, though if you blinked you missed them - which I did. Also directed by David Freeman, this Dido and Aeneas is a different thing from the Britten: distinctly modern (Queen of Carthage handed faxes), up to speed on the sex thing (on-stage snogging), sartorially elusive (indeterminate flowing garb for the women). Curse my literal mind, I thought, but what are those faxes about; and is Dido here a Queen, or a Media Type, or maybe a Restaurateur? The Endymion Ensemble, still under Nicholas Kok's direction but now brandishing period instruments, played their parts with an airy lightness; Marie Angel's Dido almost inevitably outsung a rather lame Aeneas. Angel's voice is throaty, strong, powerfully individual and one which vegetarians, for instance, would do well to steer clear of. Her lament shattered the production's roistering atmosphere, and was very moving.

This week the Wigmore Hall opened its doors again. But, with an audience of 553 against a nightly average of 300,000 at the Proms (Radio 3 included), the Albert Hall beckoned instead. Monday, with Peter Eotvos conducting the BBC SO, looked to be the week's furrow-browed, modernist high point. Eotvos, an unapologetic avant-gardiste, kicked off with his own new Psychokosmos for solo cimbalom and orchestra, "a glance inward ... into the world's psychocosmos" of 30-odd years ago. General grimness was occasionally relieved by impressive sonic vastness and/or strange percussion-inspired chattering. But this was a type of music, I thought, that was on its way out, well, 30-odd years ago. It was a disappointing Prom: intrusive loudspeaker hum all but ruined Jonathan Harvey's Madonna of Winter and Spring, a massive, ruminative piece from the 1980s, and the same intruded at lower volume during Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, buzzing like a bored fly. Bartok's Second Piano Concerto was the top event, its fiendish clusters and fughettas flying under Peter Frankl's hands. If the orchestra had injected a bit more lightness, air and spirit into the proceedings, it would have been a great performance.

Oddity of the week was undoubtedly Ballet Mecanique, by "Music's Bad Boy" (as he calls himself), the American composer George Antheil. Written in the 1920s, the piece is a cacophony for piano, percussion, electric doorbell and aeroplane propeller. At the work's premiere, the latter "blew the wig off the head of a man and whisked it all the way to the back of the house". Sadly, though, the Albert Hall could muster only prerecorded propellers. The piece was expertly played by the Ensemble Modern, and it was some time before one realised that it was really a very tedious work indeed. Steve Reich's City Life came to light up the event, receiving another outing in the year of its birth. Reich's digitally sampled street sounds are just a great idea well used, and the five movements came across almost symphonically. With all those guys shrieking "check it out" and "it's been a honeymoon!", the work is even amusing.

Which leaves that other Dido and Aeneas. The main interest there, it turned out, was not the exceptional period-instrument playing of the Musiciens du Louvre under Marc Minkowski, but the acting of the principals and the Opera Atelier dance company. The stage-work was "historically informed". Expressive gestures accompanied key words, actors and singers struck poses deriving from classical sculpture. Musically it was enormously illuminating. Baroque music, too, is stylised, depicting emotions by means of more or less established tropes and figures. Experiencing those musical gestures allied to appropriate, authentic theatrical gestures was a lesson in how to hear the music. The evening ended, in tribute to all concerned, in reverent, grief-laden silence, broken only by a car alarm in Knightsbridge.