Following the demise of the Hoxton New Music Days last year, the composer John Woolrich continues to programme a more modest series of concerts in conjunction with Almeida Opera, now at the refurbished Islington theatre. Perhaps taking their cue from Simon Holt's latest opera, Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?, which opened the festival and begins as though it's a straightforward violin-and-piano recital but then develops dramatically when the page turner gets up and begins to sing, both programmes under review here offered a curious amalgam of "recital" and "music theatre".
The counter-tenor Andrew Watts's evening, Songs for a Counter-Tenor, began conventionally with a first half consisting largely of English music, expertly accompanied by Iain Burnside. It was even framed by staple counter-tenor fare by Purcell and Gluck. Watts has a big voice, which was further flattered by the acoustic of the underused St Mary's Church, Islington. He's also a subtle and flexible singer, and there was much to enjoy here, including sensitively dramatised accounts of arias from Michael Finnissy's Thérèse Raquin; and Harrison Birtwistle's The Second Mrs Kong.
But then in the second half, all camp hell broke loose - shocking, it appeared, even a few among the posse of assembled counter-tenors in the audience - in music by the Austrian Olga Neuwirth. Not, however, the complex avant-garde scores already familiar from her but, following some brief Gertrude Stein settings, one of which was itself a Baroque derangement, four outrageous elaborations of familiar songs. Homage to Klaus Nomi (the Berlin cabaret singer) subjects "Simple Man", "Dido's Lament", "Falling in Love Again" and "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead" (the latter from The Wizard of Oz) to heavy-duty, terribly Teutonic reworkings for amplified counter-tenor and instrumental ensemble. While Watts strutted his stuff a little self-consciously, Neuwirth's accompaniments gained much of their delightfully off-the-wall effect through being crafted with all her usual fastidiousness, making even the heaviest textures full of interesting detail, complete with riotous deployment of samplers and woozy electric guitar.
The following night, Elena Langer's opera The Girl of Sand was underpinned, saturated even, with instrumental textures of equal allure, if far more conventional ones. This young Russian composer has been fostered by Almeida Opera under their excellent Jerwood Scheme, and I'm sure she's learnt a lot about how opera and, more generally, theatre work from this experience. But the fresh take on the Russian fairy tale The Snow Maiden that she and her librettist Glyn Maxwell have devised doesn't sustain its 45-minute length in as convincing a manner as I had hoped.
The initial idea of relocating the ice maiden to confront a languorous, hedonist beach culture - cleverly and wittily portrayed in John Fulljames's production and Soutra Gilmour's elegant and subtly lit, if rather too watery designs - is excellent, and Langer helps sets up the culture clash with appropriately atmospheric music written with real skill. But when we get to the part when two men compete for Nina the contemporary ice maiden's already-lost soul, neither characterisation (her sudden dominance over them is unconvincingly achieved), nor drama (which becomes too obvious in its pacing), nor music (which flattens out the dramatic perspective with too much all-purpose lyricism and pseudo-Debussy flourishes) can really hold the attention. Anna Dennis as Nina is a compelling singing actress, however, and both Andrew Slater and Richard Burkhard do their best in less rewarding roles - all three get very wet. Gerry Cornelius is the able conductor.
In the semi-staged concert that makes up the first half of the evening, the most arresting item was Birtwistle's The Sadness of Komachi - a powerful, aching setting for tenor (the commanding Nigel Robson) and piano (the histrionic Stephen Gutman) of a Japanese Noh text.
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