The most inspiring tale in my childhood Wonder Book of Daring Deeds concerned a Chinese conjuror called Chung Ling Soo. Year after year, he performed his trademark trick, catching in his teeth two bullets that were fired at him and spitting them out on to a plate - until the fateful day when gunpowder leaked into the wrong chamber of his assistant's gun. Only then did he utter his first words in public: "I've been shot - bring down the curtain!"
Thanks to the librettist Lee Warren and the composer Raymond Chiu, I now know the back story to this. The conjuror's real name was William Robinson, and he began his career in America before joining the ranks of British vaudevillians in 1900. As he was a bigamist who was also two-timing his mistress (and stage assistant) Dot, and as he masked his awkward manner by remaining mute on stage, his mastery of the arts of deception served him well. Warren and Chiu describe The Original Chinese Conjuror as a "musical diversion", and though they wish us to regard it as a meditation on the meaning of fakery, it's best taken at face value, as end-of-the-pier entertainment.
Which is why, before its move to the Almeida, it got its premiere on Southwold Pier. The band nestling beneath the catwalk included Chinese gongs and percussion, and made the perfect lubricant for the goings-on above. Narrated by Paul Leonard, as the American showman who launched the conjuror to fame, events move fast: Sophie Louise Dann (as Dot) turns in such a high-octane performance that the plot is energised throughout. Occasionally, Chiu lapses into that clichéd style of vocal writing - with the last word in every line milked for plangency - that makes West End musicals so irritating, but mostly he dwells in his own brightly coloured tonal realm. The countertenor Andrew Watts raises the roof as the conjuror's mysterious assistant.
Serious behind the fun, but at bottom an elegant trifle, this curious hybrid is something only a festival like Aldeburgh could bring off. Other events on Britten's home patch have continued to dazzle, most notably Polyphony's concert in Southwold's 12th-century church, with a programme of Schütz, Bach, Cornelius, Wolff and Schoenberg which showed off these young singers' ensemble technique to brilliant effect.Reuse content