MUSIC / And the rest was silence: Meredith Oakes on the world premiere of Kevin Volans's Rimbaud opera

'You don't understand,' I heard someone say to his companion during the interval on Friday. 'For the Almeida, this is quite good.' Anyone familiar with the Almeida's laudably eclectic commitment to new music will know what he meant. But he didn't need to hedge his defence. We were at the premiere of The Man Who Strides the Wind, and Act 1 really was quite good.

Written by Kevin Volans along lines suggested by the late Bruce Chatwin, this opera was about Rimbaud. Specifically, it was about the fact that Rimbaud stopped writing poetry, went adventuring in the desert, and died of cancer.

Act 1 showed Rimbaud on his deathbed in France, being cared for by his sister Isabelle (Susan Bisatt, with tenderly etched high lines). David Newman, a phantom Boy, sang very nice, clean, rising phrases, each time hitting the same high note, framing, duplicating and intensifying the two warmer adult voices. Rimbaud had his Arab tent mounted over his bed. The music borrowed its lopsidedly pulsing, plucked rhythms - its rapid one-note repetitions shadowing the slow syllables of a theme; its whispered, tenuous, flutey curlicues; and much more - from Afro-Arab sources like those exploited by the medieval troubadours. Everything Volans had borrowed, he had skilfully transmuted into free-floating European abstracts. Sometimes the sound, with its angular fifths, recalled Machaut's dissonant 15th-century Messe de Notre Dame.

Flexible, personal and responsive, this was a language that could cut quickly to inaccessible corners of feeling. When Rimbaud's mother appeared, determined to reclaim her tormented son by tearing away his tent, the orchestral pulse quickened with a fear that seemed to be under your own skin. But, as it turned out, Act 1 had nothing to do with the musically and dramatically parched Act 2. The opera is based, unfortunately, on the premise that Rimbaud is chiefly of interest because he stopped writing. Act 2 brought him in flashback to Abyssinia, where, alone in the desert with his servant Djami, he embarked on a very long, ambivalent and ultimately fruitless set of healing rituals. Roger Clarke's text, taken largely from Rimbaud, was inaudible - a common operatic hazard, but when a whole act is being spent with just two singers, and everything that is happening happens in the text, and you can't hear the text, then it's a problem.

In his programme note, Volans described Rimbaud's 'move to silence' as a paradigm of modernism. Act 2, then, was a dissertation on the futility of culture: an Adorno-esque altar for the sacrifice of talent. Not just Volans's talent. The tenor Thomas Randle plunged unflinchingly into the role of Rimbaud, and stayed there with extraordinary concentration through extremes of psychic distress and release. His supple, beautiful singing was always exactly to the point, and he moved like a dancer. Meurig Davies, as Djami, was not in such splendid voice, but few baritones could have matched his presence, intelligence and athleticism. Siobhan Davies's choreography, graceful and demanding, went a long way to making Act 2's arid, repetitive expanses habitable.

The Almeida Ensemble, with the Brindisi Quartet added in, played for David Parry securely and sensitively, not very boldly. Peter Mumford's production exploited the Almeida's curved space by putting the action all around the orchestra, with an overhead walkway at the back. It was an efficient, stylised exposition very much in the manner of the ENO, which co-commissioned the work.

Further perfs tonight, Friday and 12, 16 July, Almeida Theatre, Almeida St, London N1 (071-359 4404)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project