OPERA / Animal rites and Indian reservations

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The Independent Culture
AS A reluctant Wolf Cub who never made it into the Scouts, I have bad memories of Rudyard Kipling - his values, his style, his muscular espousal of the commonplace - and I can't have been encouraging when, years ago, Michael Berkeley first told me he was planning an opera on The Jungle Books.

But it finally reached the stage this week, premiered by Opera North at the Cheltenham Festival. Under the title Baa Baa Black Sheep it proved to be a more substantial, sympathetic and redemptive piece than I'd imagined possible. Neither Disneyesque nor Cats for adults, its ingenious, clean-cut libretto by the Australian novelist David Malouf homes in on Mowgli and his furry friends from an oblique angle: as fictional warriors through whom Kipling fights and wins the battles he actually fought and lost during a scarred childhood.

The son of Victorian colonials, Kipling was sent home from India to learn to be a civilised little Englishman, only to suffer at the hands of a tyrannical foster mother, Auntirosa, who dispensed civilisation with a horsewhip. He told the story, thinly disguised, in a book called Baa Baa Black Sheep; and Malouf and Berkeley have created their opera from a joint reading of this real-life narrative alongside the fantasy of The Jungle Books, pointing up the parallels between animals and humans by doubling roles in the manner of The Cunning Little Vixen. Mowgli, of course, is Kipling himself: the little boy lost between conflicting cultures. And the clash of East vs West feeds purposefully into the score, which turns on two conflicting sound worlds. Grey, abrasive textures for the English scenes; exotic, pentatonic richness (with moments of cinemascopic romance) for the jungle.

The cinematic romance was hard to place: if it was parody, why parody? But the pentatones, and the exotic colours they produce from a severe economy of means, derive from Britten, whose church parables are a clear influence on the score - though with some input from the wider Aldeburgh oeuvre. What could be more Brittenesque than an opera whose dramaturgy hinges, as this does, on a boy treble and a female soprano acting young as his sister? And the foster father, a benign old sea-dog who sings in marine imagery, raises from the orchestra a chord (surely conscious) straight out of Billy Budd. Given that Berkeley is Britten's godson, you can't help wondering if there isn't some self-reference going on here beyond Kipling's.

But these Brittenisms don't detract from the essential and distinctive impact of the score. They are more in the nature of lessons learnt, acknowledged and digested - with the result that Baa Baa Black Sheep has one supreme quality that few new English-language operas have. It sounds as though it needs the singing, with vocal lines that release the text into the music, as opposed to trapping it. And the broader feel for structure, pace and theatre is extremely sharp. This is a full- length score - two hours of music - and it held my ear without a moment's wandering.

The direction (Jonathan Moore) and designs (David Blight) are inspired in the way they interfold fantasy and reality; less inspired in the way they take the villainous humans from Dickensian music hall and the animals from Selfridges' Christmas grotto. But the performances are good, led by a wonderfully precise, penetrative and durable treble, Malcolm Lorimer, in the demanding part of the boy, and by the young baritone William Dazely as his older, loin-clothed counterpart. Fiona Kimm as Auntirosa and Clive Bayley as Bagheera the panther are also impressive. And Paul Daniel draws committed playing from the Opera North Orchestra. The whole thing is to be filmed for television later in the year; and it's good to think that there will be a permanent record of what is probably the most successful venture of its kind in recent, smaller- scale contemporary opera.

In a week when the Arts Council announced its withdrawal of funding from two (as yet unspecified) London orchestras and from Glyndebourne Touring Opera, it was smarting to have spent some time in northern Germany where public money positively throws itself at music: in Hamburg, where the state opera subsidy is pounds 32m a year; and Schleswig-Holstein, which has a festival bigger than Edinburgh (150 concerts) doing nicely, thank you, on pounds 5m.

The Schleswig-Holstein festival is, in fact, such a big event that it's hard to explain its low profile over here. It has been running, now, for eight years; and although its concerts are spread across a wide territory from Hamburg up to the Danish border, it does have a distinctive character - almost in the nature of a social experiment that mixes Salzburg glitz (celebrities like Solti, Jessye Norman, Margaret Price) with open- access populism (rural music weekends where a thousand or so people cram into a barn) and prestigious platforms for young players. But, the heart of the festival is its hybrid orchestra, assembled from student instrumentalists throughout the world who prepare a programme with a star conductor (this year it was Solti) and take it on tour. I heard their current programme (Brahms, Stravinsky) on its opening night in Hamburg; and although you can't disguise a certain lack of ensemble when musicians are thrown together, the energy of their playing was extraordinary. As was the way that Solti chatted to the audience between each piece.

But the memory I'll treasure most was of our own Arditti Quartet, who were there to play Britten and Tippett as part of a British music theme. In a packed- out 'rural music' barn, they played, of all things, Britten's Third Quartet, even managing to retain some vestige of its hushed, austere intensity against the counterpoint of deutsche Kinder whining, wriggling and being taken to the lavatory.

In more congenial surroundings at Schloss Wotersen I also heard them give a miraculous reading of Bartok's First where the delicate colouring of the score was beautifully observed through the light, translucent tone the Arditti seem to have perfected to deal with the intricate precision- tooling of modern music. It featured equally in their premiere of a fascinating piece by the German composer Peter Eotvos which was as much an opera without voices as it was a string quartet. Called Korrespondenz, it 'sets' a dialogue between Mozart and his father, intercutting fragments of correspondence that passed between them when Mozart Jnr was in Paris and using the instruments to imitate the word sounds, which are notated on the score, syllable by syllable. This is largely a matter of fragmented glissandi passing between characters: the viola takes the lead as Mozart, with the cello as Leopold and the two violins, unusually, in an accompanimental mode. A pleasing aspect of the writing is the way it combines theatre with structure, organising the material into scenes (aka movements) which progress from conflict to a tantalisingly equivocal consonance in the final scene, where the death of Mozart's mother draws 'voices' together.

Finally, some voices incorrectly drawn together. The Britten- Pears School Orfeo at Aldeburgh last month was double cast, and the young tenor I admired in the title role was Peter Evans. I'm sorry to have attributed his achievement to someone else.