MUSIC / A world of difference

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The Independent Culture
I WON'T ask you to imagine a British music festival with 11 specially commissioned music- theatre pieces from around the world premiering in nightly succession, because it could never happen. There wouldn't be the political will to fund it, nor would there be anyone with the international cognisance and clout to make it work. But in Germany, where culture is a word still spoken without irony, there is. In Germany they have Hans Werner Henze, Munich and BMW, who collectively provide the vision, the power- base and the pounds 4m it takes to run the Munich Biennale. And despite post-unification cutbacks that may affect its future, the 1994 Biennale is as punchy and provocative as ever, with the broadest of musico-literary agendas, ranging from totalitarian oppression to Messiaen- meets-heavy-metal. Henze always was eclectic.

The hit of the opening week has been an opera called Scourge of Hyacinths by the Cuban composer Tania Leon, to a text by the Nigerian Wole Soyinka. Set in Africa, it has an all- black cast and tells the story of a political prisoner, Domingo (a rash name to use in opera - it begs comparisons), whose attempted escape is foiled by hyacinths that clog the water-route to freedom. Its weakness is that it comes in 12 short, self-contained scenes that don't individually make a strong enough point to sustain the structure or give the characters dimension. Its strength is an attractive lyricism, underpinned by rich Afro-Latin instrumental colours. These are tuneful enough to forestall the boos of Mr Frederick Stocken's Hecklers, should they scrape together the air fare and grace Munich with their thoughtful contribution to contemporary musical debate.

If they did they'd be rendered hoarse by an abrasive little shocker called Report of the Death of the Musician Jack Tiergarten. Written by Johannes Kalitzke, a Cologne-based composer in his early thirties, it concerns the exploitation of the artist (any artist) and is spectacularly staged. At one point a giant head splits open to reveal a caged man who subsequently saws his limbs off. Well, why not? If I were an exploited artist I expect I'd do the same. Especially if I were under nightly attack from Mr Kalitzke's score, which is a blitzkrieg of ugliness organised with vorsprung durch technik efficiency. Ironically, this production is the first ever collaboration between the Biennale and the profoundly conservative Bavarian State Opera. But then, the State Opera is now run by our own Peter Jonas (late of English National Opera) who is sweeping the dust from its deep-pile corridors with some vigour. Let's hope Jack Tiergarten isn't too specific a statement of intent.

To show the Biennale isn't without charm, it is also running this week a free 'realisation' of an early Baroque opera La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'Isola d'Alcina (1625). This is not well sung but of interest as the only surviving stage work of the world's first woman opera-composer, Francesca Caccini, and a first strike for feminism in music. It tells the Alcina story, familiar from Handel's later setting, with a gender consciousness that determines everything, even down to key relationships - sharps for men, flats for women. As Alcina retreats into despair after the loss of Ruggiero, she also retreats musically into flatter tonalities and the self-supporting isolation of her womanhood.

For Munich, the score has been massaged into new life by another woman composer, the Italian Ada Gentile, with the same racy disregard for period propriety that Henze himself has advocated in realising ancient opera. Gentile's orchestra recreates the enchanted world of Alcina with saxophone, guitar and glockenspiel; as an extra novelty the chorus and small solo roles are all sung by boys from the celebrated Tolzer Knabenchor. They sing with un- English robustness and are cute, if not always on the note.

Talking of cuteness, the Biennale's large-scale opera commissions are, as usual, matched by smaller commissions for puppet-theatre scores - a chance for young composers to explore theatre writing within a more controlled environment. Week one produced a touching puppet piece about adolescent love, Stimmbruch, by a remarkable 21-year-old called Jorg Widmann. But the most talked- about Biennale event doesn't happen until later in the month. It's the British composer Benedict Mason's Playing Away: a football variation on the Faust legend (librettist Howard Brenton) that subsequently transfers to Opera North in Leeds. The issue is that Mason's requirements - including 23 mezzo soloists, a singing dachshund, and the addition of extra swear words to Brenton's text - have proved absurd and divisive. Relationships are breaking down on all sides, and in Biennale circles the name Mason resounds like an expletive through clenched teeth. More news of this essay in Anglo-German friendship will no doubt follow.

Meanwhile, London's Berio Festival continues to struggle with the problem that most of its concerts are conducted by the composer, who is not gifted in this respect. Last weekend at the Royal Festival Hall he took the Halle Orchestra through some abysmal Mahler. And this was unhappily prefaced by a performance of two scores of his own: a new children's piece of no interest except (perhaps) to the children who took part in it, and his creative completion of Schubert's sketches for a

D Major symphony, Rendering, which only yields real textural substance in the filler material written from scratch. The bits intended to be Schubert are anaemic, bland. After the interval a 'new' work, Epiphanies, turned out to be the old (Sixties) Epifanie in different guise: the latest stage in the development of some endlessly recycled ideas. But at least they were the real thing, classic Berio; and they featured a magnificently virtuosic mezzo, Charlotte Hellekant, as the soloist.

Thursday night brought a dilemma: Cosi fan Tutte in concert at the RFH (under Solti) or in a new, economy production at ENO (under Nicholas Kok). I went to ENO and it was the wrong choice: unsympathetically conducted, under-rehearsed (the ensembles insecure) and unstylishly dressed in the 1950s equivalent of Man at C&A. Individually, there are attractive performances: Susan Bickley's Dorabella has a fleshy beauty, Vivian Tierney's Fiordiligi an astringent strength, and together they work nicely as a sort of French and Saunders partnership. In the one smart production point going, they discover the plot, dupe the men and steal away at the end for what has the makings of a girls-together road movie. And, yes, the director is a woman, Nicolette Molnar. But otherwise this Cosi wears its poverty too blatantly. Better revive an old production well than knock together something new without the money, time or genius it needs.

'Cosi': Coliseum, WC2, 071-836 3161, continues Wed & Fri.

(Photograph omitted)