MUSIC / A joyful return to the East Coast of Britten

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The Independent Culture
I NEVER knew the Aldeburgh Festival in Britten's lifetime but I knew about it from the books, the photographs, the music, and was seduced at third hand by the windswept glamour of this little East Coast town where great things happened in unlikely circumstances. So I remember as if it were yesterday the evening in 1971 when Britten's opera Owen Wingrave had its world premiere on BBC TV, filmed (at the composer's insistence) at Snape Maltings. It wasn't the first time an opera had been written for television - Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors led the way in 1951 - but the concept was still largely unexplored and it seemed at the time unspeakably exciting. As did the night in 1973 when Wingrave transferred to the stage and I went, in pursuit of it, for the first time to Covent Garden. Having witnessed the premiere, I felt I had a stake in its future.

But Wingrave turned out not to have a future; and apart from a semi-pro production at Cambridge University three years ago, I didn't hear it again until the 46th Aldeburgh Festival opened last weekend with a concert performance in the same Snape Maltings where the piece was born. Oliver Knussen conducted the London Sinfonietta - tightly, with an analytical control that swept the short scenes of the first act into seamless continuity but didn't allow much time for breath. And the casting was odd, with David Wilson-Johnson sending up the young, sensitive but ultimately noble Owen in a caricature of manic sulkiness and a voice too darkly vibrant to sound young. But that said, it was still a classic Aldeburgh evening. The brilliant colouring of Britten's score - strangely exotic for an opera about English counties bigotry - shone radiantly from the London Sinfonietta. Mary King was outstanding as Kate (the role written for Janet Baker, who never liked it) and inevitably the performance prompted much festival debate on the merits of the piece and the reason for its neglect.

The chief argument against Wingrave is that as a re-examination of one of Britten's favourite themes - pacifism - it covers familiar ground in too polemical and monochrome a manner. Owen is the scion of a military family who makes a stand against militarism and loses his life in the process. Britten paints him pearly white, which is forgivable, but he reciprocally paints the family jet black: a breed of monsters so grotesque they seem like parodies of all the closed communities - the borough folk in Peter Grimes, the villagers in Albert Herring - that Britten operas love to loathe.

But Wingrave's strength is its score, which came after the gap in Britten's conventionally operatic output that was otherwise filled by the austere Church Parables. It revisits the luxuriance of the old style through the disciplines of the new, deceiving the ear with wonderfully rich textures from an orchestra no bigger than Mozart's. It carries fascinating resonances of other military sound worlds in the Britten operas, the encampment scene in Rape of Lucretia and the officers' small talk in Billy Budd among them. And it makes an absorbing study of harmonic imagery, governed by a single pervasive chord that begins life as an aural cypher for the Wingrave family's warrior curse but gets taken over by Owen in his pivotal aria celebrating the virtues of peace.

The Britten scholar Donald Mitchell reads the shifting metier of this chord as proof that Owen's death (through ghostly business in a haunted room) is purposeful: he dies a hero who has commandeered and pacified the music of oppression. If that's right, then Wingrave observes the equivocal endgame of so many Britten operas where the central character - Grimes, Budd, Aschenbach, Lucretia - seems to have surrendered to a pointless fate but might, just might, have found redemption. With this performance (to be repeated next week) and the long-awaited issue of the opera on CD (which has just happened) Owen Wingrave might, just might, have redeemed itself back into the repertory. The new management team at Covent Garden, which has promised more attention to English opera, should give it some thought.

There was more Britten in the opening Aldeburgh weekend, including a fragment from a wind sextet written at the age of 13 - the latest trouvaille from the Aldeburgh archive's bottom drawer - and a St Nicholas which Neil Mackie sang with blazing brightness of tone. But the highlight was a recital by the American pianist Peter Serkin that summarised the post-Brittennic stance of Aldeburgh with a first half of short, recent commissions by Knussen, Goehr, Lieberson and Takemitsu - composers who could all be said to be part of the festival's extended family - and a second half entirely given over to Bach's Goldberg Variations. Serkin's lean, clean-cut technique is the quintessence of modern American pianism but with a delicacy that softens its forensic sharpness into playing as endearing as it is intelligent. Rarely have I heard the organisational precepts of the Goldberg so clearly expounded; but rarely have I been so totally absorbed in their nocturnal atmosphere.

Verdi's Risorgimento rabble- rouser Attila revived this week at Covent Garden in the Elijah Moshinsky production that perfectly captures the cartoon epic tinta of the piece: punchily compact, no frills, and signalling the way that Verdi sketches historical events in bold but depthless outline by

captioning the scenes - 'Pope Leo halts Attila at the gates of Rome' or 'Refugees from Aquileia found the city of Venice'. This revival has in fact been done by other hands and the action isn't so crisp as before. But there is one supreme acquisition in Samuel Ramey's Attila, the most cultivated basso cantante you could hope to hear today: precise, even and lubricated through its full range, with an ideal combination of bel canto lyricism and angular strength. Beside it, Dennis O'Neill's Foresto sounds bullish and Elizabeth Connell's Odabella frayed. But the dark baritone of Giorgio Zancanaro (Ezio) holds up well. And Edward Downes conducts with the exhilarating zap of a video-game gunman.

Ramey aside, the week's most affecting singing came from Catherine Pierard in the Spitalfields Festival Dido and Aeneas: a wonderfully accomplished reading by Richard Hickox with his own period performance band, Collegium 90, the superb though naffly- named Joyful Company of Singers, and a collective of Hickox regulars including a tenor Aeneas, Mark Tucker, and a bass Sorceress, Michael George (such things are gender-flexible). Pierard's Dido, though, was the outstanding feature: radiantly secure and warm en bas, nobly expressive in its stature. Spitalfields has housed some glorious singing in its time, from stars such as Janet Baker, who sang Dido here 10 years ago, and Arleen Auger, who died last week and was remembered in the dedication of this concert. Catherine Pierard isn't such a starry name, but after Dido it deserves to be.

Aldeburgh, 0728 453543, runs until 27 June; Spitalfields, 071-377 1362, until 30 June. 'Attila' continues Tues, 071-240 1066.