Kantan and Damask Drum, Almeida King's Cross, London

Dark dreams and demon lovers
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The Independent Culture

Almeida Opera's enterprising season at King's Cross began in fine style with the London premiere of the latest offering from Alexander Goehr. Described as "an" opera, Kantan and Damask Drum actually consisted of three adaptations of Noh plays with texts by the composer and Yukio Mishima. Presented in the round – or rather, in the oblong – in the smaller of the two Almeida spaces, the bleak school-gym ambience and stark cardboard cut-out set with "manga" comic influences were at first disconcerting, but Goehr's music and some fantastically committed performances made this a powerful and atmospheric experience.

"Kantan" was the strange tale of a young traveller lulled to sleep by a magic pillow and experiencing dreams of riches and power, only to realise in the end the futility of ambition. Eugene Ginty was engaging as the naive youngster, and a male chorus commented on the action, recalling Britten's Noh-inspired church parables. Goehr's musical language is nowadays unabashedly tonal – even luscious – here evoking the ghosts of Mahler and even Elgar, at times. The orchestra, though small, in his hands summoned up some ravishing textures, with a touch of the Japanese in both modes and colours – "sho" and "koto" sounds from a keyboard and bowed vibraphone helped here. Although there was some sense of catharsis at the end, dramatically the piece lacked the relentless sweep towards the moment of crisis typical of Noh structure, but it made a beguiling first half.

After the interval, "(Un)Fair Exchange" was a grotesque comedy with a flavour of "Carry On in Kyoto" meets Planet of the Apes. Leaving aside the dubious hilarity of the central figure's decrepitude and blindness, this (fairly) harmless bit of fun was rendered with remarkable physical agility, considering half the cast were in sweltering monkey suits.

Just as well we had the light relief – the final part of the triptych was harrowing. "Damask Drum" deals with the tragic love of an old gardener for a young lady and his taunting to suicide. The cartoon style of set and costumes might have seemed at odds with the seriousness of both plot and music, but committed performances, particularly from Nigel Robson, searingly magnificent as the doomed gardener, transcended this. Goehr's music was more violent and expressionistic, with alto trombone and timpani adding a dark power to the terrifying climax, when the gardener's spirit reappears as a demon. Emma Selway had a bleak dignity as the ashen-faced Beautiful Lady, and the supporting male singers, doubling up as a chorus again, were admirable. This was compelling music theatre, and the cast, along with the conductor, David Parry and his Sinfonia 21 players, received a well-deserved ovation.

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