Prom 17/Curlew River/Birmingham Opera Company, Royal Albert Hall, London<br></br>Birds Barks Bones/The Opera Group, Linbury Studio, London

Affronted, fascinated, manipulated, moved...
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The Independent Culture

One of the many things you are not supposed to say in my line of work is that listening to the Proms on the radio is generally preferable to being there. Few domestic interiors approach the humidity of the Royal Albert Hall, and I am reasonably certain that my attention to musical detail is greater while cooking supper than when seated among people who are either coughing fortissimo in the pianissimi or are attempting to stop others from doing the same by pompously passing cellophane-wrapped throat sweets along several rows of seats. Then there's the question of sound. Which is better? The sibilant ricochet of a tutti passage slapping the hips of the grand tier? Or a live relay engineered to accommodate the lumps and bumps of an infamously eccentric acoustic? But bang! Two and a half weeks into a so-far so-so season comes an event where radio cannot possibly do justice to the live impact: Graham Vick's Birmingham Opera Company production of Curlew River.

In common with many in the audience for Wednesday's late night Prom, my first thought was that there had been a security alert. More than a dozen policemen were in the arena, chatting to hard-core Prommers discombobulated by the scaffolded stage in its centre. It took a while to register the ponytails and dreadlocks under their hats, so powerful is the authority of uniform. Then came a policeman with a flute, and another with a viola, and another with a horn, and the chant of Te lucis ante terminum began. No concession to microphone positions, no concession to perfection of ensemble, or music as a museum art.

If updating Britten's Noh-inspired church parable as a modern day murder enquiry is a brave move, making the process of investigation a rite for the loss of a child - with constables as its celebrants and evidence bags as its bread and wine - is even braver. Singing policemen, a tenor soloist in Pythonesque drag, a false audience of parents of missing children, a pack of press photographers and a stage that continually fragments and moves among the audience combine to disconcert. Do you laugh? Do you become angry? Do you cry? Had the playing of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group been less exemplary, had Mark Wilde (Madwoman), Rodney Clarke (Ferryman), Iain Paterson (Traveller), Keel Watson (Abbot), Benjamin Durrant (Spirit) and their chorus showed one scintilla less commitment to tone, text, line and meaning, this could have been a disaster. As it was, Curlew River was, with some significant reservations, one of the most powerful Proms experiences I've enjoyed.

So to the reservations. There are interesting parallels between Vick's post-Glyndebourne work and that of Christopher Alden. Both directors have a remarkable talent for directing choruses: an attention to individual nuances of gesture within a large body of people that is more powerful for being so subtle. Both directors interrogate received ideas of presentation. Both have used a second audience of actors as a fun-fair mirror to our own reactions, and both exploit that voyeuristic nexus of hilarity and horror that we feel when watching a tragedy unfold. But where Alden avoids specific contemporary references, Vick embraces them to the point of pushing their unpleasantness into his audience's faces. Which is, I think, a pity. Because until Wilde's Madwoman opened the evidence box to find the orange football shirt of her dead child - a red football shirt having presumably been deemed as being in poor taste - Curlew River was a universal tragedy. After, it was merely the first of what will no doubt turn out to be several operatic productions exploiting images from Soham.

To be honest, I don't know quite how I feel about Curlew River. Affronted? (By the Soham imagery.) Fascinated? (By the argument that police procedurals and press conferences have assumed the potency of supernatural manifestations.) Manipulated? (By having been co-opted, like several others seated at the aisles, into shaking the hand of one of Vick's policemen at the end of the ceremony.) Moved? (By the host of soft toys and tiny clothes held up by the audience of bereaved parents, and the way that the mother of the dead boy silently slipped away in the chaos of collective catharsis.) Impressed? (By the fluidity of John Hudson's stage-design, by the clever device of using men in police uniforms to control an audience, by the imaginative use of space, by BCMG's beautifully detailed delivery of Britten's transparent score, by the singing and the acting of all concerned.) All this and more. Which is a serious tribute both to Vick's directorial skills and Nicholas Kenyon's commissioning. With the exception of the unlikely arranged marriages between soloists and orchestras that this jamboree annually throws up - Prom 13's mismatched Malvern-meets-Niagara Elgar being a case in point - and the dozen new commissions that will never receive a second performance, I don't associate the Proms with risk-taking. Opening up the hallowed space to something that explodes the protocol of Promming is a remarkable gesture and I applaud it wholeheartedly. Finally, a reason to get out of the kitchen and into the Albert Hall.

Which leaves a smidgen of space to commend Edward Rushton's Birds Barks Bones, which made its London debut at the Linbury Studio this week. Wittily directed by John Fulljames - who also directed Rushton's first opera The Young Man with the Carnation (2002) - winningly performed by The Opera Group and cleverly designed by Adam Wiltshire, Birds Barks Bones is the work of a truly theatrical composer: vocally sympathetic, dramatically astute and inventively scored. (Love the ping-pong balls!) A highly promising new voice in British opera.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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