OPERA / Heaven can wait: Stephen Johnson on Jonathan Harvey's Inquest of Love at the ENO

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WE ALL know that one man's meat is another man's poison. Could it be equally true that one man's Heaven is another man's Hell? Jonathan Harvey loves the idea of eternity as a kind of cosmic son et lumiere - bathed, no doubt, in those floating pastel shades beloved by all true Steinerians. Others may think he's welcome to it, that it's struggle and pain that give meaning to fulfilment, and that without them even eternal bliss may begin to pall after a while.

In fact, Harvey's new opera, Inquest of Love, doesn't devote a great deal of its time to his Heaven. Most of it takes place in a kind of partly de-Christianised Purgatory, and one scene looks rather like Hell - or is it New York? There's enough hatred and jealousy to keep Oprah Winfrey in business for a whole series, and in Act 1 the same murder is lovingly replayed twice.

Harvey and David Rudkin's libretto has a clear point to make - it assures us that, if we confront our past and seek its forgiveness, we can be reborn as the happy beings we were meant to be. There are unequivocally 'good' and 'bad' mental states. Spirit guide Philia (Ethna Robinson), dressed in Crimean nurse's uniform, is clearly a descendant of Charles Kingsley's Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by. But whatever Harvey the man thinks, the composer seems less partisan. Violence, torment, bitterness set his imagination working at full stretch. Talk of forgiveness, love or wisdom send him to the 'natural' consonance of the harmonic series, or even to shades of old fashioned diatonics - sometimes with enticing results. But musically there's more relish in discord (in both senses) than the morality would appear to warrant.

The score can be richly inventive - in parts - but whether music and message are entirely at ease with one another is another question. At the close of the Hell scene, where the lovers Ann (Linda McLeod) and John (Peter Coleman-Wright) finally persuade bitter and twisted sister Elspeth (Helen Field) to forgive them for making her murder them, the music mirrors the characters' melting feelings sensuously; the vocal writing (in terms of inspiration often a poor second to the orchestra and the electronics) at last becomes freely, generously expressive.

A change of scene and Ann and John are going through marriage number four, this time literally made in Heaven, to sounds of bells and Turangalla-like rejoicing. In a moment of rare (too rare) humour, spirit guide Josh (Barry Banks) expresses a devout hope that the couple can get it right this time. A nice final twist suggests that the old Abbot (Richard Van Allan) - originally introduced as one of John's archetypal dramatis personae - might be the real protagonist after all, and that John, Ann and Elspeth are personifications of his internal struggles.

Perhaps the problem is simply that Harvey is too good a composer for this sort of bland Californian psychodrama. Immediately one thinks of Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage - a bald Jungian tract redeemed by a glorious score. But Tippett's music is carried by sustained urgency or pure enchantment; Harvey's engagement is - a few fine moments apart - more detached, more diffuse. His characters are objects of contemplation, not real, rounded human beings. Or at least they didn't seem so after this first night, despite strong, impassioned singing from all the principals, and the usual magnificent contribution from Mark Elder and the orchestra - but then, musically, theirs was the lion's share.

Further performances: 11, 17, 22 June, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (071-836 3161)