Holy fool who creates an unholy mess

Classical Music

CRUSHED by one mindless tyranny after another, it's unsurprising that Russian culture makes a hero of the "holy fool" or yurodivy: a spiritual second cousin to our own Shakespearian jester, licensed by lunacy to speak the truths that no one else would dare. There's one in Boris Godunov, who confronts the Tsar with his past crimes and lives to tell the tale because Boris knows the rules of the game. In real life, Shostakovich trusted to a sense of his own yurodivy status to protect him from Stalin - who also knew the rules but played them with twisted logic, acknowledging the relationship between integrity and madness by sending dissidents to mental institutions.

That, of course, stood the idea of the yurodivy on its head. But it also provided Alfred Schnittke with the basis for an opera, Life With an Idiot, which had its British premire last weekend at ENO. Adapted in the early 1990s from a short story by Victor Erofeyev, it's an abrasively surreal example of post-Soviet trauma, boiling down the great traditions of Gogolian absurdity, Kafkaesque nightmare and Dostoevskian gloom into a decidedly rude little show. The programme book describes the libretto as "vivid";I wish I could be in the audience tomorrow to see the ENO sign-interpreter translate its rich vocabulary of genito-anal functions into gestures for the hard-of-hearing. An artistic challenge.

But the plot is simple. As the punishment for some unspecified offence, a narrator (identified only as "I") takes in a lunatic from the asylum. He imagines he has found a holy fool, but no: the fool turns out to be a psychopath with an insatiable libido who destroys his marriage, life and sanity and, for good measure, decapitates his wife with a pair of secateurs. Pasolini's Teorema meets The Little Shop of Horrors.

Schnittke's score is not his tidiest or most endearing. Its acerbic pluralism - running riot through the World Composers' Catalogue of Style - creates a certain energy. But the piece is played out well before it finishes - and given that the running time is just 100 minutes, that's a serious indictment. There are strong central performances from David Barrell and Louisa Kennedy-Richardson, while Alasdair Elliott's Idiot invests the only word he has to sing - "Ekh" - with a resourceful expressivity. But they all come adrift in a production by Jonathan Moore that tries and fails to recreate the street-cred raunchiness of his previous ENO staging, Greek. It just looks scruffily undisciplined, with no feel for the striking way the piece retains the narrative delivery of written prose as the characters describe their actions, while they act them, in the past tense. The text is full of lines that ought to get a laugh. They didn't. But the set did, as its over-complicated changes stuck, its flats shook and the sound of frantic backstage voices - "This way ... push ... no, push!" - filtered across the quieter moments of the score. I've rarely seen a show less ready for an audience.

No city in Belgium is far from the next. This was a problem for the opera houses of Ghent and Antwerp, which had to compete for attention and audiences with the more famous Monnaie in Brussels, an easy drive away. But in 1988 they were combined into a single company, the Flanders Opera, and since then they've won a reputation for contemporary work. Last weekend I went to Ghent for Henze's Prince of Homburg - playing in a production by Nikolaus Lehnhof that originated in Munich - which was very successful, not least with the audience. In mainland Europe, unlike Britain, Henze's operas thrive. Homburg is a fine example from the late 1950s (revised early 1990s) whose fierce, almost indignant opulence charac- terises the composer's music of the period. The story, after Kleist, tells of a soldier who disobeys orders and expects to be executed, but instead wins the hand of the woman he loves (a Tosca in reverse). Its difficulty is that with a swift turnover of events the characters are hard to establish, while their vocal lines are teasing, promising a melodic fullness that never comes. But this was a strong cast, led by Francois le Roux and directed with a clean-cut sense of style. No props beyond three tables on a bare stage.

Philip Pickett had even less for his QEH performance of Matthew Locke's Psyche; but then there was no drama here to stage. Written in 1675, Psyche is one of the earliest examples of English semi-opera, where the action is spoken and the music segregated into self-contained interludes. Here we only had the music (with explanatory narrations declaimed by Edward de Souza as though he was auditioning to be Donald Sinden) and it was enough. Charming, deftly written, nicely done by an extended New London Consort, but not deathless work. Purcell (Locke's pupil) did it better.

`Life With an Idiot': ENO, WC2, 071-632 8300, continues Mon.

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