OPERA / A little bird's tale Bird's-eye view: Robert Maycock on the English National Opera premiere of Judith Weir's Blond Eckbert

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Last week ritual and myth, this week storytelling with pictures. There is no end to the varieties of what goes by the name of new opera, except that the 19th century wouldn't have recognised any of it. About the only thing this week's opening, Judith Weir's Blond Eckbert, shared with last week's Gawain was that the composer had the loudest cheers at the end. And this time there wasn't a boo within earshot.

What Weir delivered, however, was more subtle than an instant hit. It's a sort of low- key thriller, succinctly told in 70 minutes of music (plus interval), and equipped not with a crude pay-off but a completion of the puzzle announced in almost matter-of-fact style and left to resonate on, long after the action is over.

Drawn from the German romantic author Ludwig Tieck, the opera's story is not just Eckbert's but belongs as much to Berthe, who turns up in his town and marries him. They live on their own, visited sometimes by Walther, apparently contented until . . . Well, suffice it to say they did not know each other as they thought. Isolation and its consequences turn out to be at the core of the tale, explored through both of the main characters.

Act 1 is dominated by a long episode in which Berthe stands centre-stage and relates her history directly to the audience. For the rest of it, too, the real action is in the mind. The one overtly dramatic event, a strange half- willed murder, takes place as if in a dream.

Blond Eckbert belongs to that line of modern operas, from Bluebeard's Castle on, that do not exteriorise the action but dwell on the suffering souls that experience it. Where the words stop, the instruments take over. If you think opera should always be drama, you will be frustrated; but there are many more ways than that to make theatre out of life's mysteries.

Weir's music can suggest a whole world in a tiny phrase, and Act 1 grows out of a few notes that catch a Schumann- like feeling and colour and give it a modal twist all her own. She brings it off again in Act 2, this time with carefully placed chords and a more Mahlerian atmosphere, fit for the more anguished state of the story. Walther hunts, so he has horns, but horns that stopped off in Britten's Young Person's Guide on their journey from Weber. We have heard this sort of affectionate transformation of the Romantics before, in Robin Holloway's music of the Seventies, but never done with such a deft, understated hand.

The outcome is that Weir needs only a rhythmic nudge, a change of chord spacing or timing, to turn moods on their head. The orchestra is substantial but never plays flat out, letting timpani and brass growl before Walther makes his fateful slip of the tongue, warning you something odd is about to happen instead of hammering it home. It characterises the singers rather more than their own music, with the exception of the narrating Bird (Nerys Jones), who soars as persuasively with the voice as she does over the stage. There is less distinction among the humans, but that, of course, is one of the singular things about the story itself.

Nigel Lowery has designed Eckbert and Berthe in matching greys, but his sets supply the evening's chief visual joy. There is a delight in invention that matches Weir's music. Puppets and cut-outs punctuate Berthe's life-story. A forest with a cottage pops up at the back when we go to the 'happy' home but, once inside, windows and furnishings are sketched out in an unsettling mix of Gothic and free-hand. Where, and when, are we situated? The bird sings among electricity pylons; the disoriented Eckbert, in his wanderings, emerges under an urban motorway.

It's the closeness of sight and sound that define this production. Tim Hopkins, directing, lets the protagonists appear properly buttoned-up without strangling the personality from them, and invents a distinctive gait for each of Walther's assorted appearances. Musically there are characterful readings from all the cast as Nicholas Folwell scrupulously follows Eckbert's disintegration, Anne-Marie Owens opens Berthe to sympathetic scrutiny, and Christopher Ventris turns from Walther into Hugo with quiet flair.

Just as the sound echoes in the mind afterwards, so Blond Eckbert seems set to live on in other stagings. It is practically laid out and would work in smaller spaces; it does not overextend itself (it might even be more intense if the two acts merged into one).

Weir is back to the incisiveness of A Night at the Chinese Opera, deepened and more closely knit. Like the characters, Eckbert mutes its feelings but does not muffle them. Nor does it inflate or boast about them. She will not thank anybody for telling her that a man would never have written it like this. She can be proud of it, all the same.

In rep at the London Coliseum (071-836 3161) to 18 May. TV version in Channel 4 women composers' season, 26 June

(Photograph omitted)