Theatrical song Almeida, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
What do mezzo Nuala Willis, composer Gavin Bryars and performance artist Melanie Pappenheim have in common? Well, it's not only that they all performed at Almeida Opera this week (which they did) but something altogether less tangible. Cult attraction. All three have that elusive quality, a resonating odd-ball focus, that attracts supporters as devoted as any football crowd. But the message is an intimate one in need of an intimate space, which the Almeida Theatre perfectly provides. Nuala Willis, the affecting Elephant in Param Vir's Broken Strings, laid down her ears to bring The Unreliable Heart, an evening of theatrical song. She has a very strange voice indeed. It rises from baritone, via male alto, to full-blooded mezzo - but Jonathan Dove knows exactly how to write for it. His I Hear the Cry, choruses from the Almeida's hugely successful Medea, and All you who sleep tonight, to texts by Vikram Seth (both receiving premieres), exploit her voice in all its shades. But Willis's true metier is as a comic and her followers know it: in Britten's "Tell me the Truth about Love" and Bernstein's "La Bonne Cuisine", performed with cookbook ("Are you too proud to serve your friends oxtail stew?"), she brought the house down.

Gavin Bryars is an unreconstructed romantic, producing luscious, velvety music that luxuriates in the beauty of tonal harmony. Much of the music is profoundly sad: textures throb, melodies soar. Saturday's evening concert of four works dating from 1983 to today showed how stylistically consistent Bryars has remained. Incipit Vita Nova (1989) for male alto (movingly sung by Hilliard supremo, David Jones) and three strings, celebrates the birth of a friend's child. The young Canadian soprano, Valdine Anderson, earned an immediate "bravo" for her stunningly pitched and freshly delivered Adnan Songbook, Bryars's latest work, a cycle of eight love poems on texts by Etel Adnan, five of which received their premieres on Saturday. Anderson delivered Adnan's evocative texts with rounded musical phrasing, hitting occasionally stratospherically high notes without strain. Bryars's work is scored for low instruments - two violas, cello, double bass, guitar and bass clarinet - allowing the voice to radiate. The text seems to have encouraged a wider view, the harmonic palette is expanded, the emotional message deeply felt: a good omen for the forthcoming opera. The Gavin Bryars Ensemble excelled.

There can be fewer odder balls than Melanie Pappenheim, whose delightfully dotty Saturday Night in London Town closed the fifth Almeida Opera Festival. In distinctly uneven material from Donna McKevitt, Helen Ottoway, Jeremy Payton-Jones, Graham Fitkin, Jocelyn Pook and Laurance Crane, her vibrato- less deadpan delivery, occasionally in a vocal threesome, suggests Almeida meets Womad. Pappenheim has alluring looks and an alluring personality that grips when she's in charge; we don't feel entirely safe in her hands. But Jocelyn Pook's touchingly batty woman's magazine Tango was a riot.