OPERA / A head for heights: Nick Kimberley on the Almeida Opera season

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The Independent Culture
No wonder composers in search of narrative drama have repeatedly turned to the Bible. The Old Testament, as gory and gaudy as the pulpiest of pulp fiction, makes most opera texts seem positively decorous. The apocryphal Book of Judith almost demands musical narration and, from the Baroque onwards, composers have been happy to oblige. The parallels with Tosca are striking: Holofernes, general in Nebuchadnezzar's invading army, drinks himself into a stupor as he tries to seduce Judith. She, desperate to set her people free, cuts off his head. Terrified by this act of resistance, the invaders flee.

The political element that Puccini fudged in Tosca is here absolutely central. While Tosca kills Scarpia so that she can get her man, Judith has larger motives. In a note introducing his Line of Terror, presented in an Almeida Opera double-bill of music-theatre works on the Judith story, Ian McQueen writes that, since opera 'can bring very deep questions into immediate focus', he hopes that his piece sheds light on the 'values and ideologies of terrorism' - and McQueen uses the word 'terrorism' to denote specific political dimensions, usually obscured behind a screen of rhetoric.

Honourable intentions, but I suspect opera prefers a less direct view: to sing it removes the action to the realm of metaphor, where meaning becomes elusive. Line of Terror has lots of text, not a lot of action, yet the narrative effect is generalised, lacking the associations - Bosnia, Somalia - that McQueen desires.

That is not to say that it is anything less than powerful theatre, pushing its singers to the limit - Virginia Kerr looked drained from the exertion of playing Judith, a part she fashioned with uncomfortable clarity. Supporting singers lived and died in her shadow, but Richard Halton embodied Holofernes' villainy with arrogant ease. As Achior, counter-tenor Andrew Watts had ringing clarity, even if the significance of the role was not always plain - the same could be said of the chorus. McQueen's small orchestra (the Almeida Ensemble, conducted by Martyn Brabbins) is not afraid of a tune, and is fond of the colourful combination of flute and harp, with atmospheric wailing from a synthesiser. Matthew Richardson's staging is concise and economical, and although some shadow-play behind a curtain disperses the tension momentarily, Line of Terror has a wrenching, challenging power.

Of the four stage-works presented during Almeida Opera, David Lang's Judith and Holofernes is the most operatic - yet it has no words, no singers. For this is a miniature for marionettes, expertly manipulated under the direction of Christopher Leith. The puppeteers, uncannily, become less human than their charges, and as Judith hacks away at Holofernes, the shock is magnified because the characters are puppets. Lang's score is dominated by brass and percussion that thuds and slashes to thrilling effect. Providing two such different perspectives on the same story increases the tension, especially when both waste so little time: a cause for celebration, though one mustn't lose one's head.

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