Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?/ Infinito Nero Almeida Opera Festival, London<br></br>El Niño, Barbican, London

A B minus for the X-rated Almeida

It's at this time of year that I wonder whether this column should come with a parental advisory sticker. Why? Almeida Opera, that's why. All high Fs and F-words, innit? The Granita Glyndebourne! The big metropolitan finger to country house opera! Well, no. In fact the streets of Islington were just as slick with corporate canapes and the great and the good as the gardens of Sussex or Hampshire this week. But if microtones, minimalism and masturbating with a crucifix are anathema to you, I suggest you scroll down the page until you find the comforting phrase "chamber music".

Actually, that won't work this time. Because the first music performed in this year's festival was chamber music - Per Nörgard's piano work Achilles and the Tortoise, though what it was doing there, I do not know. Come to think of it, so was the second; Simon Holt's recently premiered Almeida/Aldeburgh commission, Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? An opera that, inexplicably, begins and ends with a wistful, agitated rhapsody for solo piano (Rolf Hind) and violin (David Alberman).

For a composer practised in suggesting the spectral with superlative economy, Bella might seem the perfect subject. Inspired by a report of an unsolved murder in Hadley Wood, Holt has reinterpreted the story of poor, unidentified "Bella" through the eyes of a fictional old man (Andrew Slater) haunted by his discovery of her desecrated corpse as a boy in 1943. But despite Holt's terrific vocal characterisation, despite committed playing and some lush, dank, cimbalom-rich writing for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in Bella's Hymn (the centrepiece of the work), this opera is totally hampered by its peculiar construction.

Had I not heard Holt's 1999 opera The Nightingale's to blame, I would have assumed Bella to be a first opera. To start with, using Slater as Hind's page-turner at the beginning of the performance and - following an awkward shred of spoken dialogue from Hind and Alberman - again at the end is a dramaturgical own goal. Are we really meant to believe he is an ordinary old codger from Hadley? If so, what is he doing turning pages for Rolf Hind at the Almeida? Is this the only time he has thrown a piano stool across the floor during a "rehearsal" before collapsing into the fetal position? And why does Alberman keep following him around like a floor-show fiddler at a Hungarian restaurant? (I'll give you £5 not to play the czardas, mate.) More importantly, why does a composer who can do so much with the wet, shuddery soundworld of bass-clarinet, harp, cimbalom and double-bass restrict himself to such dry material in all but the aria for Bella and resort to disembodied, amplified whispers for supernatural chills?

Ironically enough, the hymn itself is terribly good. In much the same way as Holt has given the old man a compelling "voice" in the extreme jumps between baritone and falsetto registers (a vocal tour de force from Slater), he makes Bella (Rachel Nicholls) the antidote to Alice Sebold's sweet-natured Susie Salmon from The Lovely Bones. Lazy, irritable and melodramatic, Bella is the kind of woman who might very well drive someone to murder; the inexcusability of which is, I presume, Holt's big idea. Still, Nicholls's singing is superb - vicious, crystal clear and riveting from extreme top to growling chest voice - and her accompaniment a first-rate example of Holt in shivering, shifting eco-mode. A shame there wasn't more of this.

Somewhat to my surprise, I enjoyed Salvatore Sciarrino's Infinito Nero rather more. Despite audible sniggers from the audience - which I understood once I clocked the zippered vagina dentata at the front of naughty nun Katalin Karolyi's rubber apron and realised that her intentions towards the crucifix were less than pure - I rather admired the score. The mechanistic inhalation and exhalation of Sciarrino's pitchless woodwind - like the suck and gasp of a life-support machine - seemed, unlike Holt's opera, very confident in its aesthetic. Karolyi's performance was also so intense and unembarrassed that one could only applaud her. Hers is a wonderful voice, not that we heard very much of it or indeed that we knew what it was she was singing about, beyond the fact that she was extremely turned on by God. Surtitles next time, please.

So back to American Opera Week and the British premiere of John Adams's El Niño. But first a large helping of humble pie. In last week's review of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett's Songs before Sleep, I implied that Sir Richard had never composed an opera. As several readers have since pointed out, he composed five operas during the 1960s; one of which, the Second Viennese School-inspired The Mines of Sulphur (1965), they assure me is worth a revival. Apologies to Sir Richard and his fans for this error, and for wrongly attributing his 1969 cycle A Garland for Marjorie Fleming to 1968. Next time, I'll be sure to check my facts before shooting from the hip.

The first time I heard El Niño - on disc - I didn't like it. Still grumpily post-natal, I found its rapt blend of Central and South American poetry and mediaeval mysticism a somewhat starry-eyed response to "the miracle of birth". The folk idioms seemed in diametric opposition to the bite and punch of Adams's didactic choruses; the Hildegardian lyricism of the soprano and mezzo solos quite at odds with the later medievalism of the counter-tenor trio and the signal reference to Handel's Messiah. Futhermore, I had no idea how to relate to a dramatic work that operated to a Baroque formula but aspired to late-Romantic emotional intensity, that told the nativity story only to consider the quotidian, domestic miracles of pregnancy and birth. Was it an opera? An oratorio? A rappresentazione sacra?

Whether repeated exposure to Adams's multivalent score or a growing sympathy towards any work that sincerely tries to achieve something great is at the bottom of my conversion, I don't know. In Amsterdam last year, I was overwhelmed by its strength. At the Barbican last week, that feeling of being incredibly lucky to witness a work of this distinction, and of our time, only deepened. For the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then - and for the Barbican, who co-commissioned El Niño - this event was something to be very proud of. Wrestling with what must be Adams's most complex score to date, their responses to its myriad stylistic and textural changes were quick and true. But with singers of the calibre of Dawn Upshaw, Kirsti Harms, and Willard White on stage - to say nothing of the fearsome Theatre of Voices and the plangent trio of counter-tenors Daniel Bubeck, Steven Rickards and Paul Hillier - behind them, and Adams himself conducting, anything less would have been shocking.

Though the performance was billed as semi-staged, there was plenty to look at in Peter Sellars's production. Too much, perhaps, what with the dancers on stage and the hand-held video of a modern-day Hispanic sacra familia adrift in Los Angeles behind it. But Sellars's direction of the soloists on stage showed simplicity and sophistication in equal measure. Harms sang with smooth certainty, White with a gravitas that outweighed some dubious intonation, while Upshaw's searing, spitting account of Rosario Castellanos's Memorial de Tlatelolco should forever quell any accusations of winsomeness on her part.

One footnote to the controversy aroused by a male composer writing on pregnancy and childbirth. Gabriela Mistral - the Chilean Nobel Laureate whose astonishing metaphysical poem about labour, The Christmas Star, marks the climax of Act I - died in the late 1950s without having experienced either. If this doesn't prove that art can transcend experience - regardless of the gender of the artist - I don't know what does.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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