If Streetwise Opera confounded the skeptics with their astonishing production of Britten's Canticles in 2002, their latest venture will almost certainly have reversed the tide of critical opinion. Time Flows is a love story based on music by George Frederick Handel and Jimi Hendrix: neighbours in London's Brook Street, give or take a few centuries, and "both geniuses on their respective instruments". OK. Stop hyperventilating about cultural relativism and listen. This is a tale about a company drawn from London's homeless, about a slender plot and a cheesy romance, about music that has endured long after its creators' deaths, and about how one fleeting moment of grace can make the kind of community art that purists sneer at into something of equal aesthetic and social value.
Setting aside any misgivings about calling a show that combines material from Hendrix (Cross Town Traffic, Purple Haze etc) and Handel (Falsa Imagine, Where'er you walk etc) an opera, Time Flows marks a step forward for Streetwise. Where the Canticles saw the chorus in largely silent roles, Time Flows puts them centre-stage. Mary (Yvonne Powell) and Sam (Mick Turner) are two ingenues who collide on Brook Street in search of the former homes of their musical heroes. They fall in love, with a little help from the mysterious Mr Sands (Jason Pennycooke).
Directed by William Relton, Time Flows saw audience and cast ricochet between the two spaces of Trinity Buoy Wharf: one set up as Handel's salon, the other as Hendrix's pad. To symbolise the musical giants we had mannequins dressed to highlight their respective eras' sartorial similarities. Then came the guests: for George, a coterie of Popes and Jenningses; for Jimi, a klatsch of Townshends and Richardses. (Keith not Cliff.) Then came the greatest hits and the potted biographies. But the moment of Handel's death, when rival divas Cuzzoni (Katherine Manley) and Bordoni (Rowan Fenner) quietly crooned De torrente in via to the accompaniment of the London Handel Orchestra and the Streetwise chorus as they removed the frockcoat and sabot from his mannequin, was on another level of seriousness. And the rough, wistful sound of the plainchant - the yearning and pride and intensity of it - was extraordinary.
In reviewing an organisation like Streetwise aesthetic and social values blur. Similar problems beset the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, of course, and they have Daniel Barenboim as their guardian angel. So how do you judge their performances? Against Opera North or the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester? Or against the void that would be were they not to exist? In both instances, moments of magic are few. But those moments show an intensity of engagement with the music that perhaps says more about a composer's legacy than any virtuoso ensemble could. For musical directors Thomas Gray (Hendrix) and Laurence Cummings (Handel), Time Flows was a mammoth achievement. For those who worked with them, even more so. But what next? Scratch the skin of a relativist and you'll find a purist. Yes, I'd like to see Streetwise tackle a stronger work. But gosh, for that one movement from Dixit I'd take 20 baroque'n'roll arrangements of Acis.