Opera: Life's a gas for the laid-back doctor

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The Independent Culture
"DRAMATIC IT isn't," wrote my colleague Robert Maycock a decade ago of a concert sketch Gavin Bryars composed for Doctor Ox's Experiment, based on a little-known Jules Verne story. After a further year's delay owing to funding crises, the opera received its world premiere at the Coliseum on Monday. The composer's style having apparently settled itself in for the duration as the ultimate in laid-back nonchalance, could its melancholy melodies and smoochy jazz harmonies sustain an evening in the theatre?

Bryars is nothing if not canny; he also has an operatic treatment of Medea with Robert Wilson behind him. Verne's tale - of mayhem brought to the Flemish town of Quiquendone by a scientist, Doctor Ox, through his efforts to energise its previously lethargic citizens by dosing them with a mysterious "oxhydric" gas - is a very clever choice, if these days making a rather obvious parable. It gives the composer every justification for filling most of the first act with music sometimes so laid-back that it's propped up only by the wit and characterful colours of Blake Morrison's text and some well-upholstered orchestration.

For almost an hour, the quiescence of Quiquendone is broken only by the rising tide of the machinations of Ox and his somewhat unwilling assistant, Ygene. An expert at conjuring fresh timbres from his fairly modest vocal as well as orchestral resources, Bryars makes his two pairs of lovers counter-tenors and high sopranos, and underpins the opera's love interest with the lazy, crazy sounds of an amplified jazz double bass. These effective ploys could surely have been further enhanced by making more of the "early music" sounds spearheaded by the oboe d'amore. But as Ox, a tenor, the excellent Bonaventura Bottone boldly took on the main responsibility for enlivening the proceedings. (Thank goodness the composer eventually decided against using Tom Waits).

The surprise is that Bryars makes such a success of the ensuing action, which demands, and receives, quicker changes of mood and tempo and the establishment of a real dramatic momentum. Act One ends with a fast-forward staging of Act Four of Les Huguenots (a performer of which is the subject of Ox's first experiment), in which Meyerbeer's original is pulverised to splendid effect. And in the much shorter Act Two - in which decadence and violence get their comeuppance - Bryars offers genuinely dramatic variety and control of pace as well as atmosphere. Outside the Meyerbeer spoof, I wasn't sure what he was up to with a score whose approach to quotation and irony in a somewhat fin-de-siecle 19th-century context is rather elliptical. But the results, oddly compelling in the theatre, work much better than do some of the composer's recent concert pieces.

Atom Egoyan's production deals imaginatively with all this, his slender physical resources - a few ladders, some ropes, little more than a kind of electric fire to conjure up Ox's equipment - enhanced by some pliant and evocative ensemble work (from chorus as well as solo singers) and, notably, by Rick Fisher's evocative lighting to supply a suitably ambiguous range of narrative modes. Sandy Powell's costumes for the townsfolk resemble bedspreads, but perhaps that's appropriate. Amidst a sterling cast, David James and Valdine Anderson as the main lovers must also receive particular mention. In the pit, James Holmes secured strong vocal and orchestral contributions.