MUSIC / Too much reality mars the fairy magic

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The Independent Culture
BAZ LURHMANN is the Australian director who made it to Hollywood with a sense of style and the success of Strictly Ballroom. And because we all like style he was a safe bet to take Edinburgh by storm last week when his Australian Opera production of A Midsummer Night's Dream came to the Festival Theatre - packaged with his usual production team, and the nice idea of transferring Shakespeare's / Britten's fairy magic from Renaissance England to the perfumed East during the last days of the Raj. But what it offers more than style I'm not so sure. Essentially it does for the Dream what Walt Disney does for Aladdin, with a captivating cartoon opulence, a lot of fun, a bit of camp, and some neat displacements in the process of fitting the story to its new world. The court becomes the English pukka class, the rustics army privates from an It 'Ain't Half Hot, Mum entertainment corps, the fairies Indian exotica. And that addresses a persistent problem of the piece. Britten never wanted his fairies to be nursery cute, and made the point in angular, percussive fairy music, bright with chilly incandescence as opposed to fireside charm. But in performance, charm - and what the poet Auden witheringly called the opera's leanings to 'pure Kensington' - is hard to get away from. Joss sticks, jewels and multi- limbed divinities are an extreme alternative but worth the try.

The problem is that cartoon story- telling doesn't take you far into the texture of the piece. The pivotal Puck / Oberon relationship (more interesting to Britten than the couplings of the human lovers, who are for the most part musically dispatched in swift, accompanied recitative) isn't

explored. The tender sincerity of the

rustics gives way to slapstick. And there is one major error of judgement.

Britten was drawn to this story for the way its world of dream and sleep escapes the inhibitions of adult wisdom to claim the freedom of childlike innocence. When he cut down Shakespeare's text, it was the court scenes that went, leaving an almost total focus on the magic wood. But Luhrmann's set design, which doesn't change, features a bandstand with the band (the opera orchestra in army uniforms) onstage throughout. Another nice idea, you think - until you realise that this 'courtly' presence is to dominate the piece from start to finish. So there's no escape, no refuge from the mortal world, and Luhrmann's magic spectacle is compromised.

Given that the singing is largely undistinguished (Michael Chance's Oberon too prosaic, dressed though he be as a transvestite barmaid), that Tyler Coppin's Puck is repellently camp, and Roderick Brydon's conducting unremarkable except for insensitive speeds, compromised spectacle is about as much as you get from this Dream.

Meanwhile, back in England . . . 'Sarajevo, an opera,' say the posters for Nigel Osborne's new collaboration with Craig Raine at the QEH, modestly eschewing the definite article on the assumption, I suppose, that there may be others. But it is not a helpful title. Sarajevo is both more and less than opera. It's a cabaret of woes: a miniature Gesamtkunstwerk that threads together speech, song and theatre in the attempt to do whatever art can with a crisis on the scale of Bosnia's.

But what, I asked myself repeatedly throughout the show, can art do? Wagner would have said that it could heal the wounds and redirect the miscast energies of sick societies. Osborne, Raine and everybody else involved in Sarajevo - an Opera Factory project, directed by David Freeman - seem to be saying that all an artist can do is observe, report, and carry on. And that's what happens in the piece, which is about people carrying on with their lives - washing their hair, walking the streets, facing their future - in countless little acts of homely heroism while the bullets fly.

It comes in three sections, starting with spoken theatre: Euripides' Trojan Women in Don Taylor's fine translation which doesn't project well because the central actors are ex-Yugoslav and speak with marbles in their mouths. But that's the point. Euripides' bleak scena of the aftermath of war has been updated to the present day, where women stand and wait amid the smouldering ruins as they do through history. And the tragic dignity of the performances transcends all niceties of diction. Katja Doric, Selma Alisphahic and Rade Serbedzija are three awesomely communicative souls.

No music really claims the piece until Part II: a collage of letters, diaries and reminiscences by Bosnians themselves, organised against a sort of narrative (a love-transcending-frontiers story in the background) and leading directly into Part III, which is a long, static lament that takes the narrative back to the Trojans, closing the endless circle of world misery and lessons never learnt.

Osborne's writing is spare, for just three accompanying instruments, and rarely thickens texturally until the final section, where it speaks with ritualistic eloquence. But, perhaps because the nature of cabarets is to shunt material together randomly, it has no obvious sense of shape and feels adrift in time. In other words it drags, with contours that feel flat and long after the tight dramatic focus of Euripides. Had the love story come closer to foreground or the Bosnian / Trojan parallels developed in more detail, it might not have mattered. As things were, it was too unassuming: earnest, from the heart, defeated by its good intentions.

It's a far cry from the ruins of Sarajevo to the ordered calm of Weston Park, country seat of the Earl of Bradford before he became a celebrity chef, and now held in trust as a venue for things like the Heart of England Music Festival which made its first appearance last weekend. That the artistic

director is Julian Lloyd Webber means it is a popular event with a bias to the cello; and I've never heard quite so much cello in the Elgar Cello Concerto as in the performance amplified to an open-air audience of thousands on the Saturday night, where modern electronics readjusted the odds historically stacked against the soloist. It should have been a dubious business. Actually it was a fine performance, conducted by Sir David Willcocks and played by Lloyd Webber with a fluent lyricism that was crafted, elegant and - irrespective of the speakers - beautiful.

But so was the recital given in the house by Natalie Clein, the 17-year-old who won this year's BBC Young Musician prize with her own profoundly musical performance of the Elgar. At Weston Park it was a programme of Vivaldi, Shostakovich, Beethoven; and though the odd thing registered a still- developing technique, the sense of youthful genius caught in the moment of discovering its possibilities was an infectious joy. Oh to be 17 and looking forward to a future like Ms Clein's.

'Sarajevo': QEH, 071-928 8800, continues Fri and Sat.

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