MUSIC / The greatest story never told: Adrian Jack on the UK premieres of works by Berio and Messiaen

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The Independent Culture
The true story of Berio's opera La Vera Storia doesn't exist - one answer to all that frustration with stillborn dramatic narrative on the modern opera stage. Berio completed the work in 1981, by which time games of interpretation and ambiguity were nothing new - certainly not to him. He describes the first part of La Vera Storia as an opera, the second as an analysis, although Part 1 is based on stock situations (all related to political violence) rather than a coherent plot.

The semi-staged UK premiere at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday, in which Berio himself conducted the BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, was like a brilliantly animated tableau. As a production, it was a triumph, with bands of players invading the audience, and singers (performing from memory) disappearing and reappearing in different positions among the orchestra. If Berio's treatment of crowd scenes is flamboyant to the point of seeming flashy, the glamour and inventiveness of his orchestral music is quite overwhelming - and much stronger than in his Un re in Ascolto, staged at Covent Garden some years ago.

Spectacular interruptions by the popular singer Milva, according to the librettist, Italo Calvino, provide 'moments of reflection and ironic detachment'; more like a purgative, I'd say, with the 'straight' singers' parts seeming unenterprising by comparison. The soprano solos (hard to take from the abrasive voice of Felicity Palmer) which ended each half with tragic resignation, should have been moving, but instead were monotonous. Simplicity was never Berio's strong point.

The latest bit of Messiaen to reach London was a Piece for Piano and String Quartet (the functional title), written in 1991, the year before he died, which the Premiere Ensemble included in their concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday. It's not much more than a musical calling card, nor is it chamber music in the usual sense, because the strings play in block formation, counterpointing or alternating peremptory flourishes with the frisky piano part, which brings in the song of the garden warbler.

The main business of the evening was a well-prepared performance of Messiaen's blockbuster, of nearly 20 years earlier, Des Canyons aux Etoiles. Mark Wigglesworth conducted with Loriod planted firmly at the keyboard, dispatching the songs of countless birds with a no-nonsense air. Richard Bissill played his compendious horn solo with a cool practicality. But while all of that was hugely absorbing, the most beautiful music came in the eighth of the 12 movements, in which a long string melody is garlanded with exquisitely judged elaborations on piccolo, glockenspiel and piano - a magical evocation of blue sky, birdsong and bliss.

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