<i>The Fool</i> | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Gunther Schuller, that under-rated American composer and polymath, says that "basically, I don't care what category music belongs to; I only care whether it is good or bad". After the enervating spectacle of John Tavener's The Fool, on Monday night, however, my faith (somehow the word seems apposite here) in the inherent virtues, in the right hands, of just about any style or aesthetic approach has taken a further knock.

Gunther Schuller, that under-rated American composer and polymath, says that "basically, I don't care what category music belongs to; I only care whether it is good or bad". After the enervating spectacle of John Tavener's The Fool, on Monday night, however, my faith (somehow the word seems apposite here) in the inherent virtues, in the right hands, of just about any style or aesthetic approach has taken a further knock.

For one thing, Tavener's brand of essentially contemplative music seems antithetical to any even vaguely realistic theatrical treatment. It was, admittedly, a little surprising to find that the first of The Fool's seven "feasts", or scenes, embraces actual musical contrast; its passages of vigorous music are welcome. Yet their dramatic impact is blunted by being shoehorned into rigorous, restricting alternation with the composer's more familiarly static manner. For another, one gets the impression, not for the first time with Tavener, that to pay too attention to the sounds is to risk missing the message which their creator - himself in certain respects a "holy fool" - is offering us.

Premiered last week in Norwich, The Fool is Tavener's fourth collaboration with the director Lucy Bailey, and reportedly his last dramatic project with a libretto by Mother Thekla, the 82-year-old Orthodox abbess from Whitby who has long been the composer's mentor. The work portrays a "holy fool" of the Orthodox tradition as a bedraggled, screaming, snoring, guzzling, leaping and posturing oaf who also happens to play the cello, which he keeps with him in bed when he's not parading it around the stage. The Fool was apparently "refined after a close encounter with Norman Wisdom".

The only evident reason for this idiot's alarming facility in the chamber-music department is that Matthew Sharp - who sings as well as plays the Fool with considerable skill, and a remarkably straight face - is a member of The Gogmagogs. This subversive septet of string players (who must presumably from henceforth be known as The Godmagogs) will doubtless be rewarded in heaven for their prowess as the Fool's earnest hangers-on.

Bailey's resourceful production gives these white-apparelled and white-faced musicians plenty of leaping and posturing of their own to undergo, including some hanging from the walls, in the business of assisting the Fool with his ritual outbursts. They are his only company in Bunny Christie's white-walled, graffiti-infested cell (lit with great imagination by Chris Davey), until, following an appearance from the Mother of God and a cross of light on the wall, a chorus of partygoers in black (the Pegasus Choir) bursts in to help celebrate Christmas and Easter in mercifully quick succession.

The moment when the Fool's glass of wine was raised in celebration of the Transubstantiation will long stand out - even though it had some strong competition during this 50-minute show (short shrift for the faithful, then) - as a serious entry for Bad Sight of the Year.

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