House of the Gods, Linbury Studio, London
The Cave, Barbican Theatre, London
Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, Royal Opera House, London

At home with the Gods

House of the Gods , Lynne Plowman and Martin Riley's second opera for Music Theatre Wales, is billed as a gothic horror comedy. A tale of blood-sacrifice, pseudo-science, bare-knuckle boxing and Aberystwyth B'n'Bs, the opera works hard to raise a smirk in Michael McCarthy's energetic touring production, but fails to provoke any chills. In its purest form - young man discovers sinister secrets in a cellar - it could have been both comic and horrific. But Plowman and Riley have made their WWI mystery a metaphor for, you guessed it, Iraq, with a sub-plot involving the retirement plans of three Celtic gods.

Home on leave from the front, Jack (Mark Evans) is a Tommy Atkins whose shell-shock equals battle fatigue, equals Gulf War Syndrome, equals post-traumatic stress disorder. Ma (Fiona Kimm), the doyenne of the Docklands pub Jack is sheltering in, juggles a side-line in "French Lessons and Swedish Massage" with her role as the goddess Morrigu, and dreams of retiring to Wales. Her husband, Da (Andrew Slater), is a drink-sodden incarnation of Dagda, who laments the pre-machine-age battles of his youth. Meanwhile, poor, mad Lily (Louise Cannon), who has been brought up as their daughter, is being sexually abused by her necromantic "uncle", Crom Cruiach (Philip Sheffield), who is working on a potion to create the ultimate weapon of mass destruction: a soldier without fear.

It says much for Riley's vernacular that the libretto does not trip over this surfeit of sub-plots. Though Crom, Jack and Lily are little more than cyphers, Ma and Da are sympathetically drawn, with much the best material, and much the best performances. (Kimm's sex scene is worth the price of admission alone.) Plowman's scoring is remarkably efficient and economical, with crisp figures for trumpet and snare, and pointillist miniatures for harp, pizzicato strings and tuned percussion, deftly realised by the ensemble under conductor Michael Rafferty. You get the sense that Plowman could write in almost any style if she wanted - cabaret, music hall, Victorian hymns, Irish folk music, I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Britten, and pseudo-Stravinsky feature in House of the Gods - and that she is having a ball with her tight management of only 11 instruments. The downside to this versatility is that it is hard to identify which of the many voices she adopts is her own.

No such problems with The Cave, Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's 1990-1993 triptych on the story of Abraham as related by Israeli, Palestinian and American believers and non-believers. Though described as opera, the work can be read as a post-modern oratorio in which contemporary commentary on Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpretations of the story has equal significance to the story itself. Musically, it is an extrapolation of the speech-notation Reich used in Different Trains (1988). The scale is grander, the textures richer, with a string quartet, woodwind drones, tuned and untuned percussion, amplified computer keyboards, and four voices echoing the rhythm and pitch of the interviews which are fragmented on five video screens. Imagine Pérotin reworked for CNN, and you have a fair notion of the contrapuntal discipline required.

Quite aside from the dazzling amount of work involved in making these visual, spoken, sung and played elements cohere syllable by syllable, I was fascinated by the way in which an apparenty apolitical work subtly passes judgement. The Israeli third of The Cave is sombre in its scoring and staging, the Palestinian third more sensual and dogmatic, the American third almost child-like in its informality. Where those in Hebron and Jerusalem speak of Abraham as they might speak of their grandfather, the New Yorkers see him as "James Dean" or "a cowboy". Though I'd heard more A minor chords than any listener should have to hear by the end of the evening, I left with a renewed appreciation of the continued importance of this story. For what could be a more pertinent question than "Can we live with Ishmael?"

Richard Jones's 2004 production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk has returned to the Royal Opera House, with a darker seam of menace in the orchestral score, breathtakingly tight comic-timing, a sensational reprise of the role of Sergey from Christopher Ventris, and a new leading lady: Eva-Maria Westbroek. Where Katarina Dalayman suggested Katerina Ismailova's fate was predestined, Westbroek plays the role as though every bad decision she makes could go the other way. It's different, but no less impactful. With uniformly excellent singing, acting and playing, this revival is again the nastiest, sleaziest, bloodiest, and blackest production to be seen on the operatic stage.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

* House of the Gods - Music Theatre Wales ( www.musictheatrewales.org.uk) - on tour to 25 November. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - Royal Opera House (0207 304 4000) - to 17 October

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