Opera: Life's a gas for the laid-back doctor
DR OX'S EXPERIMENT COLISEUM LONDON
Thursday 18 June 1998
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.
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 'The Fappening': Rihanna 'nude pictures' claims emerge on 4Chan as hacking scandal continues
- 2 Frank Lampard equalises for Manchester City against Chelsea: how the internet reacted
- 3 Stamford Hill council removes 'unacceptable' posters telling women which side of the road to walk down
- 4 Kim Kardashian 'nude pictures' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence 'The Fappening' scandal
- 5 Hitler’s former food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, review: Revolution still seems far off
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written
Friends 20th anniversary: The highs and lows of the cast's careers since TV series ended in 2004
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, ITV, review: There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning
Foo Fighters: 2015 tour dates announced for Sonic Highways
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God