MUSIC / Cold comfort farming

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The Independent Culture
RARELY CAN the name Midsummer Opera have sounded so mistaken. Was it the singers' devotion to Handel's Agrippina that kept them warm, or carefully concealed thermal underwear? Whatever the explanation, as the temperature plummeted and da capo aria succeeded da capo aria, Midsummer Opera's alfresco Agrippina, given in the garden at 90 Grange Road, remained musically and dramatically gripping.

Alan Privett's production, while remaining essentially an 18th-century view of power-sex struggles in ancient Rome, effortlessly incorporated echoes of Dallas and the yuppie generation. Nero's defence of his claim to the throne was triumphantly transformed into modern electoral canvassing, while sycophants Pallas and Narcissus passed amongst the audience and bribed us with grapes - though, in the circumstances, warm cocoa might have been more persuasive.

Singing and acting were consistently fine. Michael Pearce's bumbling Claudius, Lorelle Skewes's super-brat Nero and Alison Charlton-West's scheming Poppea were good black comedy, and more than caricatures. Ricard Bordas's frustration as the slandered Otho was all too easy to understand. The star performance was Jenny Miller's imposing, elegant and power-crazed Agrippina. But special mention must go to David Roblou and his period instrumentalists for making Handel's orchestral writing spring to life.

Seating was warm enough at the first night of Opera Factory's Yan Tan Tethera in the Queen Elizabeth Hall the previous evening; it was Birtwistle's music that provided the chill. The sound of Harry Nicoll's Bad 'un, piping his weird three-note tune through orchestral mists, was unsettling enough in itself - still more so when contrasted with Geoffrey Dolton's growing anxiety as the shepherd Alan. Dolton's bemused horror as he walked into the Bad 'un's trap amongst the standing stones was a moment to set tiny claws running up the spine, especially so when prepared with all Birtwistle's climax-building skill, strongly realised by conductor Mark Wigglesworth and the Premiere Ensemble.

Even allowing for the power of the music and of David Freeman's production, the impact of Yan Tan Tethera remains mysterious. Why, in this modern age, do we still warm to folk-tales of straightforward good-vs-evil conflict - and with singing sheep? Perhaps the answer is that when it comes to the exploration of myth, Birtwistle has no peer. The excellent cast and musicians certainly helped. And the sheep are wonderful.