MUSIC / Fair music, foul language: UBU - Cardiff Festival

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The Independent Culture
ALFRED JARRY'S foul- mouthed, coprophagous Ubu play may not seem the most likely starting-point for an opera libretto, until you remember the role of violence and the grotesquely anti-poetic in much new music theatre of the Sixties and Seventies. In a curious way Andrew Toovey's new version for Music Theatre Wales, which had its premiere on Wednesday, seems to come too late. Few who attend such events are shocked any more by bloodless pantomime slaughter. Meanwhile music itself has moved into a more eclectic phase where the stark alienations of the old avant-garde have been tempered by more amenable elements which Jarry himself might well have been hard put to comprehend. The disappointment of Toovey's chamber opera is that it allows its slower elements to intrude and ultimately dominate, without doing so at the surreal level which might have worked as an Ubuism in its own right.

To tell the truth, this Ubu becomes something of a bore. Canadian director Keith Turnbull's production rarely solves the problems of pacing raised by Toovey's rather generous helpings of 18th/19th-century pastiche interspersed with longish stretches of folksy neo-medievalism. Any sting left in the piece is cauterised by the St David's Hall auditorium, with its easy-going acoustics and lack of proper intimacy. Such a work surely demands the intense atmosphere of a small theatre where the sound can come at the audience. Here, though Toovey had the voices amplified at some cost to the aural geography, the words - four-letter and others - were often lost, leaving one wondering at the pious naughtiness on the singers' faces.

As for the orchestral writing, smoothly handled by the 13-player MTW Ensemble under the unfailingly musical Micheal Rafferty, it may sometimes be too nice for the subject, but it does argue a versatility of ear and technique which, with sharper integration of materials, could yet find an ideal home in the musical theatre.

However, the faint aura of undergraduate theatre which hangs about Jarry is, if anything, exaggerated by that slightly arch manner professional singers have with risque material until taken in hand by a strong director. Toovey needs to make up his mind on the singers-or-actors question. Ubu is, among other things, a tour de force of vocalism: while it is out of the question for actors, they would, nevertheless, inject more venom into the story.

Tonight at St David's Hall (0222- 371 236). Then touring, including the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 5 Oct (071-928 8800).