Talvin Singh: Voxygen, St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

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The Independent Culture

Pushing out its art form's boundaries, the new regime at English National Opera has hit its stride, and inviting Talvin Singh to devise a show in the 18th-century ecclesiastical annexe next door represents its boldest stroke yet.

Pushing out its art form's boundaries, the new regime at English National Opera has hit its stride, and inviting Talvin Singh to devise a show in the 18th-century ecclesiastical annexe next door represents its boldest stroke yet. Singh's claims to fame include spearheading what's known as the "Asian underground", founding the east-London nightclub Anokha and making a successful CD of the goings-on there.

Singh is London-born but he spent his late teens studying tabla with a master in the Punjab; he is described in ENO's programme as both an "iconic club DJ" and a "sonic sculptor". He defines Voxygen as celebrating "the inner voice and omnipresent sound", while ENO's supremo Sean Doran describes the series of events of which it forms part as "exploring what opera can mean to audiences in the 21st century". What show could live up to those promises?

Anglican incense hung faintly in the air, and the church was full, though not with the usual ENO crowd; a video-cameraman occupied the pulpit, while the tousle-headed MC shot a pleasant line of patter as he lengthily tuned his tabla. And when Singh's vocal collaborators appeared - Ravi Prasad and Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Khan Dagar from India, Sussan Deyhim from Iran via New York, the London-trained Patricia Rozario and the Italian Francesca Cassio - the globe seemed well and truly girdled. They, plus a large bank of electronica, were the materials from which Singh would fashion his latest sonic sculpture.

First on was Ustad ("Master") Rahim, who delivered a song in the austere North Indian dhrupad style for which his family is renowned: it was a wonderful taster but all too short. Then on came the others, lining up like horses champing at the bit. Prasad's opening number consisted of oddly truncated phrases; Rozario's was classically polished and ethereal; Cassio's tone was earthy; Deyhim exploited microphone effects; and Singh did that quintessentially Indian brand of wordless rhythmic scat singing, while extracting a battery of effects from his electronic tabla. Then - with ecstatic gestures - they began to interact, hurling phrases back and forth, whipping up excitement.

That drew dutiful whistles and shrieks from sectors of the audience, but the excitement didn't extend beyond the chancel, because it was less communication than a display of narcissism. For, despite the musicians' far-flung origins, they all sounded pretty much the same. That's what happens when musicians join the international festival merry-go-round, jazzing and jamming with like-minded exponents from other cultures: losing its identity, their art loses its force. Voxygen was more sonic soup than sculpture. The man in the pulpit got his video, which will doubtless be triumphantly brandished round the world. But a vast gulf lies between celluloid triumph and the real thing.

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