1789 and all that

Roderic Dunnett enjoys a bold but not always audible staging of Von Einem's `Danton's Death' at the Brighton Festival; "Give Couthon my head, Robespierre my balls, and perhaps they'll stop baying in the streets."
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The Independent Culture
Did they? Georges Jacques Danton was in the revolution up to his neck, from the first cry of "To the Bastille", through the Constituent Assembly, the Tuileries royal arrest and the Committee of Public Safety, to his own sticky demise on 6 April 1794. Some might say that, with him, the revolution itself lost its tete.

His enemy, or his faction's enemy, was of course Robespierre, together with his cronies, notably Couthon, the gorgeous but terrible Saint Just and Herman, the President of the Revolutionary Tribunal, whose almost loving, chorus-backed tryst with Danton (both parts for baritone) forms the high point of Gottfried von Einem's immediate postwar opera Danton's Death, first heard at the Salzburg Festival in 1947.

It was a wow then - perhaps because someone else's revolution is less galling to contemplate than the ghoulishness of one's own past decade. Von Einem was rather a dab hand at grisly quasi-legal process and revenge. His opera on Kafka's The Trial was unveiled at Salzburg six years later under Karl Bohm. The Visit of the Old Lady (1971), revived last month by New York City Opera, is a chilling tale of retribution taken almost directly from Friedrich Durrenmatt's play, rather as Berg's Wozzeck was from Buchner's original text (Von Einem's often appealing score lies somewhere between Berg, Hindemith and Reimann).

Buchner is the source for Danton too: the opera's strengths - or at least potential - derive from the uncanny way the young German playwright caught spot-on the pulse of French revolutionary history as early as 1834. But - for all the skill of the six-scene textual paraphrase by Einem's teacher and librettist Boris Blacher - this is a three-act opera squelched into two, with the inevitable loss of characterisation and perspective that ensues. Just occasionally, it verges on the thinness of a musical.

This New Sussex Opera production - the work's British premiere - was a bold undertaking; one cannot praise it enough. Yet why commission a racy translation from Amanda Holden, only to have two-thirds of it obscured? Worst offenders were the otherwise diligent chorus - and hence the chorus master and capable conductor, David Angus, too. The upper-line words were quite lost in the syllable-dispersing Dome acoustic. A potentially pithy Wildean text got reduced to mere sloganising.

There were many positive aspects. John Lloyd Davies directed, designed and lit, all with a marked intelligence, restraint and sense of the unities. A well-built, Glyndebourney set with a genuinely 3D-feel, the effects unfancy (suspended, lit corpse, three flats like an inverted guillotine, an interior that crossed Vermeer with Marat/Sade). Chorus entries and exits, and several set-piece moves, were always tidy. The principals' action, forced stage right and kept to a modicum, made Danton's occupation of Herman's desk (a visual hint of wheel of fortune confirmed by a large swinging plumbline) all the more striking. Robespierre's scarlet, raised siege seemed as gloriously ludicrous as the tribunal at his doomed 1794 Notre Dame celebration of the Supreme Being.

The beautifully controlled lyric tenor of Wills Morgan smelt a sure bet for Desmoulins; Alan Oke's acerbic tenor a natural for Robespierre. Fascinating to find them reversed. The lyric scenes largely failed - even Alison Roddy's tragic Lucile, led by unvibratoed flute, missed that innocence, akin to early Rimbaud or Lorca, so crucial to her soliloquies.

But Morgan's poised, priestly Robespierre, a Dr Mesmer riding over seductive clarinet (another fine touch from a slightly over-vociferous Flanders orchestra, telling in the Brittenesque passacaglias), would have graced The Crucible. RNCM-training showed through some well-delivered contributions from both Danton (Andrew Slater) and Herman (Andrew Greenan).

Einem's sub-Expressionist bittiness threw up some winsome vignettes: Andrew Mackenzie-Wick's nicely counterpointed Herault; John Hall's St Just, madly underused; and two gems from Stephen Brown: the young aristocrat who gets off a lynch mob with a natty penile pun (a cheeky improvement on Buchner), and the young headsman who fuses Berlioz's helmsman with the Lily of Killarney. Now that really does make for Lorca.

Second performance 7.30pm tomorrow, The Dome, Brighton (Booking: 01273 709709)