Opera ; BROOMHILL TRUST OPERA ; Draper Street Warehouse, Tunbridge Wells

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The Independent Culture
The fairy tale may be politically incorrect and "unsuitable for children", but it's making a comeback. First was Judith Weir's Blond Eckbert, revisiting romanticism in new narrative modes. Now Andrew Toovey, composing for the Broomhill Trust's 1995 opera season, has explored the Brothers Grimm in a violent one-act parable of envy and deceit: The Juniper Tree.

Friday's performance wasn't quite a premiere. Two years ago, Broomhill pioneered a studio reading of the opera, and the acclaim it received led to the current fully staged production. Concert performances of music theatre too often point up a common weakness: that it is more cantata than true drama, more reported than direct speech, more telling than showing. In the event, however, Broomhill's decision has been justified by the outcome. Toovey's first opera, Ubu, aroused mixed feelings. In contrast, The Juniper Tree presents impeccable credentials concerning its integrity as theatre.

The strength was partly in the story. As if we need reminding of our capacity for inhumanity, this tale of family values has a wicked stepmother, infanticide and buried bones as symbols of the dark things that poison lives but make great value for thriller writers and structural anthropologists. Dic Edwards' economical libretto kept up the tension of the original without indulging in wordiness. In Stephen Langridge's presentation, audience and the Eos ensemble formed two sides of a square arena in the small yet comfortable Draper Street Warehouse. Embedded in a sea of wood chips, the tree itself, an abstract design of metal, contrasted with the kitchen cooker and the characters' homely costumes: overalls for the husband (Richard Morris); red dress, shoes and apron for the violent mother (Marcia Bellamy), and prissy frock for the daughter (Jacqueline Horner).

Yet it was the music that counted most. Toovey's style is hard-edged and brutal, but laced with moments of unexpected sonic beauty like messages from planets Cage and Feldman. Feelings and moods are "exposed" in whatever sense you take the word, but neither modulated nor transcended. So in the short Rilke settings of Fallen for voice and violin, heard in a pre- opera concert, the poetry was matched by precisely imagined string textures that had the status of exact metaphor. Less effective were the Japanese vocal-ensemble settings of Winter Solstice; again, there were the vivid aural images, but here unfocused by supporting text or scenario.

As for The Juniper Tree, planned in terse, explicit blocks of sound that eschewed transition for the tactics of shock therapy, the style proved a perfect match. And in the lyric episodes such as the pipe-and-tabor accompaniment to the husband's return, or the murdered son's concluding aria, Nick Hariades' counter-tenor fading al niente to end the show, Toovey's stock of Teutonic folk melody was persuasive and dramatically apt. The special sounds for each character - tortured woodwind for the mother, piccolo and marimba for the bird - were faithfully captured by Eos. Charles Peebles conducted with skill and insight that included a precise grasp of the rapid flow of events.

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