The Cricket Recovers, Snape Maltings, Suffolk

A bug's life among the reeds
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By way of riposte to the meditative middle-aged nihilism of Harrison Birtwistle's The Io Passion, this year's Aldeburgh/Almeida co-commission is as benevolent as a summer breeze. The Cricket Recovers, Richard Ayres's first "proper" opera, is a tale of little animals with big emotions.

By way of riposte to the meditative middle-aged nihilism of Harrison Birtwistle's The Io Passion, this year's Aldeburgh/Almeida co-commission is as benevolent as a summer breeze. The Cricket Recovers, Richard Ayres's first "proper" opera, is a tale of little animals with big emotions.

Adapted by Rosalie Hirs from Toon Tellegem's epigrammatic children's stories, The Cricket Recovers is a wise and witty work. Though Tellegem has been compared to AA Milne, his philosophical soul-mate is Tove Jansson, whose wry Moominvalley stories also touch on depression, dislocation and disappointment. From Platée to The Cunning Little Vixen to Higglety Pigglety Pop! - each of which is referenced in Ayres's score - opera too has a long history of anthropomorphising animals in order to explore human emotions. Rameau's eponymous amphibian aspires to elegance, Janacek's Vixen to autonomy, Knussen's Jennie the Highland Terrier to excitement. Ayres's Cricket (Claire Wild) simply wants to get rid of the "big, unyielding feeling" in her head: a feeling that the Ant (Anna Burford), who is the sole character cursed with a memory, diagnoses as gloom.

Written in 18 brief scenes - with evocative depictions of the night noises of wing and leaf and carapace, a Beethovenian tempest, and a comically raucous dawn chorus - the score is a stylistic tour de force. Ayres employs devices that range from baroque sommeils, through to Ländler, tango, and cabaret chansons. Flourishes of brass break out like laughter (perhaps in tribute to Ayres's mentor Louis Andriessen), vocal ensembles taunt and tickle like Rossini on acid, potted Alpine Symphonies depict the Elephant's heroic efforts to climb a tree, and Straussian "telegram style" dialogue conveys the urgent exclamations of the animals. If this is pastiche, so are the operas of Aldeburgh Festival's Artistic Director, Thomas Ades.

Though some of the pauses between scenes were over-long in the second performance of The Cricket Recovers, Nicholas Broadhurst's direction is delightfully pacy. The forest set and delicate video projections - which include tumbling bowler hats, skittering pond-flies, and flying letters - are by The Brothers Quay, whose looming car-headlights in the final scene reveal the characters' vulnerability in the human, or adult, world. The Vole (Allison Bell) is a coloratura schoolgirl in a go-cart, Wild's Cricket a knee- and elbow-padded cyclist, Jonathan Gunthorpe's Elephant a Hergé-style deep-sea diver. Burford's Ant is a bowler-hatted bank clerk, the kindly Squirrel (Joanna Burton) a charlady, the lecherous Gallworm (Keith Miller) a Blakean demon in a pendant thong. Despite balance problems between the pit and stage, the singing - most especially from Wild and Bell - is excellent, likewise the playing of the Almeida Ensemble under Roland Kluttig.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

Almeida Opera, London N1 (020 7359 4404), Weds to 4 July

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