MUSIC / A master touch: Robert Maycock, at the Almeida, finds that old hands make lighter works

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
While the first of the new- style Almeida Opera festivals lost some of its focus as it went on, it kept turning up good things in unexpected corners, as though surprising itself. For its final weekend it even upstaged its own chamber-opera commission (from Nils Vigeland) by putting the work in a double- bill with one of the fortnight's hits - Ernst Krenek's What Price Confidence? A pithy comedy from the composer's American period (to a text of his own), it came over at the studio-based festival like a lesson in how to do it from a wise old hand.

Dry and brittle, the score oozed understanding of voices and theatre. It cut crazily from one scene to the next and knew just how to sketch character with a wild flourish or a suave line, heading from a farcical coincidence of adulteries into areas of high anguish as the confident and the unconfident partners swapped places. Brief and brisk it may be, but What Price Confidence?, like Cos fan tutte, has the gift of treating painful feelings of love and doubt within a ridiculous framework of symmetries and contrivances, touching you as it tickles.

That was enough to draw bright portrayals from a vivacious cast - Geoffrey Dolton, Angela Tunstall, Kevin West, Rachael Hallawell - against Mark Bailey's slightly surreal designs, big on bowler hats, fond of rolled-up illustrations which would unfurl without warning, and dominated by the skeletal head of a dinosaur. Only one performance, though. Vigeland's False Love / True Love had a second, which was only fair for a new work, although it amounted to no more than two acted-out scenes from Jane Eyre, set to earnest and anonymous music. The score showed less feeling for the voice than for the solid, back-to-Brahms accompaniment by a piano trio (Helen Crayford, again, was the untiring pianist). Meurig Davies was a worthy Mr Rochester, Susan Bisatt had a nice line in tense poses and agonised gazes; but here Caroline Gawn's stage direction had less chance to strike sparks.

A real Vigeland trio opened one of the two Sunday concerts by BIT 20, a mixed instrumental group from Bergen. Again it was upstaged: Ives Music, which sounded like a homage, had some sensitive encounters of disparate ideas but was poisoned by a nostalgic streak, at least alongside Ives's own succinct writing for the medium of the piano quintet. Altogether the group's repertoire was strong and diverse, and BIT 20 itself was another of the festival's real successes, with some especially fine string players who presented such a forceful case for the Schoenberg Ode to Napoleon that Bernard Jacobson's painstaking delivery of the Byron poem was quite overwhelmed.

They brought two British premieres: Lichtbogen, by Kaija Saariaho, explores the drifting textures and sliding lines she has made her own, with moments of higher definition and patterning; while the larger gestures and broader emotions of Tre Voci by Arne Nordheim - three songs, three poets - were firmly and warmly projected by Anne-Lise Berntsen over typically bold instrumental colours. Then came an engaging view of Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra, poised between the dogged and the absurd, and Kevin Volans's exploratory Into Darkness, making patterns like his 'African' pieces but at a bleak opposite pole of mood. All this demands a less hasty visit from BIT 20 soon.

Comments