OPERA / Love makes the show go round

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The Independent Culture
'YES, YES,' say the final words of Jonathan Harvey's new opera Inquest of Love. 'No, No,' I thought when I first read the libretto, trying to decide what it was about beyond a dense psychodrama of domestic relationships of the kind that Michael Tippett and Iris Murdoch might have hatched between them had they ever (God forbid) collaborated. A young couple, fatuous with young love, have arrived in a religious community to be married by the Abbot; but their marriage is frustrated, terminally. They are murdered by a woman who has had some kind of unresolved relationship with each of them in the past. Act II pursues all three (dead) principals into the afterlife, where they confront the issues which brought them there, redeem themselves through understanding and forgiveness, and at last are ready (as they weren't before) for the marriage.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because Harvey has woven into his plot one of the elemental stories of opera: the story of Mozart's Magic Flute and of Tippett's Midsummer Marriage, which holds that true relationships depend on inner wholeness and come at a price. So far as libretti are concerned the price can be high in pretension and didacticism, and Harvey's libretto (written with the playright David Rudkin) isn't immune from either, with its astral guide called Psychopomp and lines like 'Wake. Man. Woman. Stand now. Come. Put from you these false shadows.' Wagner gets away with less.

But libretti are not written to be read; and the world premiere of Inquest of Love at ENO last weekend was a demonstration of how music can command and cure a wounded text - which was the very thing the piece set out to do. This opera, like most of Harvey's work over the past 20 years, is concerned with the healing power of music to address physical needs through spiritual transcendence. It's a concern which has tended to keep him out of the musical mainstream, even though his writing is steeped in an (admittedly odd) combination of mainstream interests - European electronics on the one hand and Anglican choral tradition on the other. He has been unclassifiable except as a quiet, contemplative and rather English follower of Stockhausen. But spirituality is back on the world's musical agenda - think of Schnittke, Tavener, Gorecki - and in Harvey's case it comes in a refined, developed form which has absorbed a rich diversity of influences.

One is Eastern mysticism. The timeless non-directionality of Eastern thought runs deep in this opera, which proceeds in a circular motion rather than a straight line, repeatedly revisiting the central trauma of the story (the murder) and reprocessing a core fund of thematic ideas that assemble early in the score rather than pace themselves successively through its duration. There is also a strong suggestion that the whole piece has taken place out of time, its 120 minutes of music occupying no more than a moment in the contemplation of the Abbot who appears, striking a meditative pose, at the beginning and the end. We hear his breathing in the electronics (very Tippett) and suspect that, like Alice vis-a-vis the Red King, we and the opera and its characters are just a fleeting fragment of his thoughts.

But if the actuality of the characters is in question - and whether or not they exist, their deaths are almost certainly a metaphor for inner crisis - the actuality of the music is certain. Music as a physical presence is so conspicuously acknowledged in Inquest of Love that it ought to have a credit in the cast list: this is not an opera where you are expected not to notice people sing. Even the sound effects, the murderous gunshots, are an electronic analogue notated in the score; and the integration of electronic and orchestral sound (respectively mixed from the auditorium by Harvey himself and conducted from the pit by Mark Elder) produces saturating textures over which the voices declaim in naturalistic rhythms. The accompaniment is usually more interesting than the vocal writing, so when the odd line gets lost you don't feel it matters too much. But the performances are good, with a strength that exceeds the expectation of the score in the case of Linda McLeod who brings a supercharged dramatic weight to a role (the bride) designated lyric soprano. The groom is written for a baritone rather than a conventional love-interest tenor, so Peter Coleman-Wright's solidity is both attractive and appropriate. With Helen Field as the murderess, plus a chorus of young, athletic singers who include some minor soloists, it's a compelling cast.

Harvey also gets an unexpectedly sympathetic (ie, restrained) production from David Pountney that doesn't obscure the narrative with too many optional extras. Pountney has de-Christianised the context, turning the Abbot and his community into 1960s sages in velvet frock coats; but the ideological pedigree of the opera is sufficiently mixed to take it (there is at least as much social psychology and Rudolf Steiner at play here as there is regular religion), and the secular perspective generates some liveliness from what could easily have been a deep, thoughtful but static work. Instead, Inquest of Love proves a curious success on stage, and perhaps the best of the new operas to have come out of ENO's commissions scheme so far. It offers reassurance that in music as in heaven there are many mansions where the spirit dwells; and they are not all Holy Minimalist.

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