MUSIC; Thinking small

Mecklenburgh Opera Young Vic, London
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The Independent Culture
If anyone realised the potential of small companies, it was the late Stephen Oliver, composer of over 40 operas and of much incidental music for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Timon of Athens, a 1991 ENO commission, was his swansong and his lasting work, but the pithy one- acter was his speciality. Short and bitter-sweet, Bad Times, The Garden and Exposition of a Picture made a triple-bill at the Young Vic on Thursday. As a statement of the fascinations and flaws of the genre, they were ideal.

Immediacy was their great strength. A famous writer worries about the betrayal of a friend in his autobiographical novel; a woman plans to do away with the witness to her husband's murder; the painters Cavaradossi and Marcello, from Tosca and La Bohme respectively, confront each other in the haunting presence of the Magdalen. Collectively titled "Passion Killers", each situation deals not with the pursuit of love, but with the shards of its wreckage. Clearly influenced by soap opera and the truth-in-a-nutshell half-hour radio play, the precise role of the music was hard to grasp. Presented with a minimum of props on a bare stage, these pieces lacked the supporting conventions of theatre yet failed to find substitute manners of their own.

Though scored for string quartet and harpsichord, they were not just boiled-down, bargain-basement operas. But neither were they operatic cantatas, like Britten's Phaedra. Good acting and staging were vital to convey what the music failed to capture: a tone of voice or a situation beneath the ceaseless current of jittery musical invention.

Clearly inspired by this challenge, tenor Stephen Rooke, baritone Richard Halton and soprano Ingrid Attrot were exemplary in their various roles. Halton's solo impression of himself in the hubbub of a literary lunch in Bad Times was a masterpiece of technique. In The Garden, tension between Rooke, the knowing gardener, and Attrot, the murderess with a mission, was carefully paced to arrive at the theatrical conclusion: a glimpse of the murder weapon.

The singers outperformed the music, despite conductor Anne Manson's determined advocacy. Real-time transcriptions of common-day experience such as these throw into relief the soul of opera: the myriad ways to reinvent the unities through the magic of sound and stage. But the expressionistic prose of the accompaniment denied Oliver the means to soar. You can have the talents of a Britten but without his truly theatrical musical language, you're only half a dramatist.

Nicholas Williams