MUSIC / A lifetime's search for the moment

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Stephen Oliver died earlier this year he had completed 40 operas. This sounds like, and was, a lifetime's achievement, although the modest length of some of them (eight minutes upwards) bor witness to a healthy disregard for the responsibility composers bear to write Important Works. Oliver didn't care about importance. He was a creature of the theatre, his talents geared to the potential of a given moment on a stage and to music that was almost self-effacing in the way it served dramatic situations. And therein lies the strength of Mario and the Magician, a full-length opera written in 1988 but not seen in Britain until last Thursday when it launched the first ENO Contemporary Opera Studio season at the Almeida, Islington.

Mario in fact requires a sizeable ensemble of principals but the vocal burden is taken by the baritone Magician (Richard Jackson) and a piano is similarly prominent among the accompanying instruments. The story is Thomas Mann's and circles Death in Venice territory - German tourists in Italy unsettled by a powerfully disturbing character, homo-erotic it is implied - but with the added resonance of anti- fascist satire. Echt-Mann, echt-Oliver, who sets it with a dry, agitated style that touches on parody vernacular but keeps its deference to the text. Sometimes you wish it didn't, straining to catch something more melodically assertive. But Oliver had an extraordinary linguistic sensitivity. He made the adaptation of the text himself and every word counts, which is why this opera makes good theatre, not great music. Tim Hopkins directs it, Nicholas Kok conducts.

Robert Saxton wrote his opera Caritas with Arnold Wesker, and when I saw the premiere last year in Wakefield (an Opera North production for the Huddersfield Festival) I thought the collaboration had diluted rather than enriched the personalities it drew on. Seeing it again this week at the QEH with the same cast and staging didn't change my mind, but I realised I had underestimated the stature of the score. It is intense, tightly coherent and especially effective in its use of a Brittenesque repeating ground to wind up the emotions of the short second act.

My reservation is that the narrative - a young girl bricked up alive as an anchoress in medieval England - has two main qualities: it's shocking and it's physical. I want to see these things on stage and hear them in the music, and I don't. The stage is open, and the music comes not with the punch of big and finite shapes but squeezed like toothpaste into long lines, subtly varied in pace and energy but not their contour. Caritas is a mature, impressive piece: I wish it stirred my soul.

Stravinsky's Rake's Progress has the power to stir souls but conductors and directors rarely cultivate it; and while the Aldeburgh Festival's Rake had a sympathetic (if rhythmically soft) conductor in Roderick Brydon, it had the infamous Julia Hollander to direct it. To have seen Ms Hollander's past work (the ENO Fennimore and Gerda is enough) is to know that this is a lady with no base line to her innovation. At Aldeburgh it sank to fun with condoms and the world's longest blow-job as vain attempts to enliven a brothel scene that otherwise didn't take place because the chorus was relegated to the side of the stage, oratorio-style.

In fairness, there were financial constraints on the production. It was done for the Britten-Pears School, the chorus was amateur, and Hollander was trying to make virtues of necessities. She had one good joke - a London A to Z descending on a wire when Anne resolves to go in search of Tom - but it came at the wrong time, when the score makes no allowance for a laugh. Luckily, she had a good cast: oustanding student voices, mostly from America. Jennifer Smith's Anne was tender, warm and secure on the cruel high note that ends her Act One aria. Greg Fedderly's Tom was sensational, a big baritonal tenor with an easy Broadway lyricism.

Aldeburgh closed this year on several other high notes, with its accustomed genius for throwing light on its own past. There was an adroit orchestral enlargement by Colin Matthews of Britten's song cycle A Charm of Lullabys. Also, an intriguing programme that paired works by Britten and Berthold Goldschmidt - near contemporaries whose fortunes proved radically different - with Britten's 1933 Alla marcia (a youthful quartet movement) alongside Goldschmidt's cantata Letze Kapitel (which sounds like rather four-square Kurt Weill).

Goldschmidt is a cause ripe for adoption. One of pre-War Germany's most promising composers, he escaped to Britain just before the Holocaust and has lived here ever since, largely ignored. Now 89, he still writes - a trenchant new Quartet was premiered in the concert - and deserves more serious study.

London this week took in serious reappraisals of American musicals. The Guildhall School staged Do I Hear a Waltz? (Rodgers/Sondheim) and did it well (unstinting accolades to Alice MacDonald, Zubin Varla and David Curtiz) although the piece proved to be no more than opinion had it at the premiere in 1965: good taste, no passion.

Far more durable is Bernstein's On the Town which the LSO semi-staged with spectacular panache and a starry cast (Samuel Ramey, Thomas Hampson, Tyne Daly . . . ) at the Barbican. The LSO enjoys this repertory and, with the best brass in the country, does it gloriously. Above all, it has Michael Tilson Thomas whose exuberant charisma is one of London's greatest cultural imports. Somebody should steal his passport; keep him here, a permanent example to the English music world of how to have a ball.