MUSIC / Charity without clarity: Stephen Johnson on Robert Saxton's opera Caritas at the QEH

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The Independent Culture
THERE was an understandable buzz in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer just before the first London performance of Robert Saxton's Caritas on Wednesday evening. It had just been announced that Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and Opera North had won Prudential Awards for services to new music. The world premiere of Caritas at Huddersfield last year involved both forces in prestigious collaboration - a message there, surely.

Coming to a staged Caritas after hearing the new recording was in some ways encouraging. On the minus side, the orchestral textures - frequently strands of scurrying, fluttering or careering lines arranged in multi-layered toccatas - still appear on the whole to respond to situations, feelings and ideas only in a broad, generalised way. By concentrating hard one can pick out shapes that seem momentarily to reflect something specific happening on the stage, but without a score it's hard to pin them down before they are caught up again in the helter-skelter forward movement.

On the other hand, this forward drive can be compelling, and the nervous, claustrophobic atmosphere grows in intensity towards the final climax; it's remarkable, too, how powerful - how 'orchestral' - that writing sounds, despite the smallness of the instrumental forces.

That determined motivation presents one big problem, though. There are passages where the sounds in the pit seem intent on their own purposes rather than productively engaged with the vocal lines - however much the latter may echo shapes in the orchestral writing. The voices sometimes seem to hover uncertainly above a torrent of notes. In places it's undeniably effective, but there are just as many places where important sentiments expressed by the characters are effectively marginalised by the orchestra. After the performance was over instrumental patterns and sounds continued to buzz about in the memory; but it was difficult to recall vocal details beyond a few characteristics, such as the Travelling Priest's quavering speech-song, or the way the intervals in Christine's lines widen towards the climax of her desperate final scene. Is this an opera, one wonders, or a play with music?

Whatever the answer, there can surely be no questioning the power of the Opera North performance and production. Eirian Davies's singing and acting in the central role of the tortured anchoress Christine was stunning, Jonathan Best was hardly less impressive as Bishop Henry - on the surface a patriarchal villain, but with something almost heroic in the way he continues to defend the Church's authority against chaos, however much his conscience pricks him. Christopher Ventris was a believably good-hearted, if hot-headed Robert Lonle (Christine's fiance). Smaller roles were equally strongly realised, particularly David Gwynne's Travelling Priest and Linda Ormiston's gossipy Mathilde. The children of Allerton Grange Middle School, Leeds, coped well with the tricky, closely imitative figures with which they repeatedly taunt Christine. The uncluttered, calculatedly drab scenery (matching the colours of the costumes) made effective use of the idea of enclosure and the separating wall. No doubts whatever: Opera North richly deserve their Prudential Award.