Written by Kevin Volans along lines suggested by the late Bruce Chatwin, this opera was about Rimbaud. Specifically, it was about the fact that Rimbaud stopped writing poetry, went adventuring in the desert, and died of cancer.
Act 1 showed Rimbaud on his deathbed in France, being cared for by his sister Isabelle (Susan Bisatt, with tenderly etched high lines). David Newman, a phantom Boy, sang very nice, clean, rising phrases, each time hitting the same high note, framing, duplicating and intensifying the two warmer adult voices. Rimbaud had his Arab tent mounted over his bed. The music borrowed its lopsidedly pulsing, plucked rhythms - its rapid one-note repetitions shadowing the slow syllables of a theme; its whispered, tenuous, flutey curlicues; and much more - from Afro-Arab sources like those exploited by the medieval troubadours. Everything Volans had borrowed, he had skilfully transmuted into free-floating European abstracts. Sometimes the sound, with its angular fifths, recalled Machaut's dissonant 15th-century Messe de Notre Dame.
Flexible, personal and responsive, this was a language that could cut quickly to inaccessible corners of feeling. When Rimbaud's mother appeared, determined to reclaim her tormented son by tearing away his tent, the orchestral pulse quickened with a fear that seemed to be under your own skin. But, as it turned out, Act 1 had nothing to do with the musically and dramatically parched Act 2. The opera is based, unfortunately, on the premise that Rimbaud is chiefly of interest because he stopped writing. Act 2 brought him in flashback to Abyssinia, where, alone in the desert with his servant Djami, he embarked on a very long, ambivalent and ultimately fruitless set of healing rituals. Roger Clarke's text, taken largely from Rimbaud, was inaudible - a common operatic hazard, but when a whole act is being spent with just two singers, and everything that is happening happens in the text, and you can't hear the text, then it's a problem.
In his programme note, Volans described Rimbaud's 'move to silence' as a paradigm of modernism. Act 2, then, was a dissertation on the futility of culture: an Adorno-esque altar for the sacrifice of talent. Not just Volans's talent. The tenor Thomas Randle plunged unflinchingly into the role of Rimbaud, and stayed there with extraordinary concentration through extremes of psychic distress and release. His supple, beautiful singing was always exactly to the point, and he moved like a dancer. Meurig Davies, as Djami, was not in such splendid voice, but few baritones could have matched his presence, intelligence and athleticism. Siobhan Davies's choreography, graceful and demanding, went a long way to making Act 2's arid, repetitive expanses habitable.
The Almeida Ensemble, with the Brindisi Quartet added in, played for David Parry securely and sensitively, not very boldly. Peter Mumford's production exploited the Almeida's curved space by putting the action all around the orchestra, with an overhead walkway at the back. It was an efficient, stylised exposition very much in the manner of the ENO, which co-commissioned the work.
Further perfs tonight, Friday and 12, 16 July, Almeida Theatre, Almeida St, London N1 (071-359 4404)