Pop goes the opera

Darryl Way, who gave us the prog-rock group Curved Air, has turned his attention to Bulgakov. Nick Kimberley wonders why
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The Independent Culture
"Keep it simple" is advice opera composers seem reluctant to follow, as if the act of making an opera weren't hubristic enough. Problems usually begin with the choice of subject. Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, written in secret in Stalin's Russia in the 1930s, runs to well over 400 pages. Not quite War and Peace, but a handful for any composer, especially when it's their first opera. Undaunted, Darryl Way spent three years working on it, and now New Millennium Opera premieres the results.

Classically trained, Way made his name in the 1970s as the violinist with the band Curved Air. More recently, his music has turned towards classical forms: a concerto, a suite for string orchestra, a set of orchestral variations. He has also helped bring a classical inflection to the work of pop luminaries such as Stewart Copeland and Sting.

The director, David Graham-Young, has already presented a stage adaptation of the novel. It is not clear how close the opera sticks to that version; nor, never having read the novel, can I say how faithful it is to the book. There's no law that says an opera must be faithful to its source, but when we read in the programme that Bulgakov's novel is "a mischievous iconoclastic satire on totalitarianism", our appetite is whetted.

Graham-Young's libretto copes well with the set of doublings that grow from an encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in a park frequented by Moscow's literati. We see the enigmatic Woland, rather like Sarastro in Mozart's The Magic Flute, first sowing murder and mayhem, and then, without ever losing his diabolical aspect, effecting the final reunion between the Master and Margarita. Not every scene has dramatic weight, but the libretto succeeds in telling its story - and you can't say that about every opera libretto these days.

Way's contribution is less succinct. His computer-generated orchestra plays on tape, occasionally supplemented by keyboard doodles from conductor Mark Etherington. The singers are miked, somewhat erratically, but at least there are no problems with hearing the text; and the cast is dominated by the sweet and clear purity of Fiona Rose's Margarita, and by the occasionally sulphurous bass of Derek Hamon's Woland. The crucial drama lies in the confrontations between these two enigmatic figures.

Vocally and orchestrally, the score is suffused with pop's easeful and enviable lyricism, but, shorn of pop's eminently practical restraints (such as brevity), the music spreads amorphously. The relentlessly syllabic vocal lines hover unsteadily between exaggerated parlando and speech, and in fact many lines are simply spoken. Even-tempered, lacking the surge and swell of good show tunes, the music chunters along happily, avoiding anything that might be mischievous, iconoclastic, satirical.

Instead, the opera is content to grant the eponymous lovers sweet harmony, at which point the music finally achieves the climax it has been striving for. An audience, hoping perhaps for something more menacing or acerbic, might ask, "Is that all there is?"n

To Sat, the Place, London, WC1 (0171-387 0031)