OPERA / Ooo, I wanna be like you: Stephen Walsh finds Michael Berkeley's new Jungle Book opera lacking a few of the bare necessities of real music-drama

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The flood of first operas shows no sign of abating, but nor does the impression many of them give that opera is a status symbol rather than a natural medium of expression - a musical OBE that sometimes bypasses the operatic ABC. Michael Berkeley's new three-acter, Baa-Baa Black Sheep, commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival and premiered by Opera North in the Everyman on Saturday, is a clever and lively work based on a cunning literary idea (librettist David Malouf). But it seldom achieves that sense of musical- dramatic necessity without which modern opera is apt to seem like an expensive way of complicating simple ideas.

The idea in this case comes from an autobiographical memoir by Kipling about his unhappy childhood, pensioned out by his Indian civil service parents with a sadistic evangelical foster-mother in Southsea. This is certainly stage material. But modern opera being what it is, Berkeley elaborates it by analogy with The Jungle Book and Mowgli's double rejection by the wolf- pack and the human tribe to which he tries unsuccessfully to return. In Malouf's libretto, the boy Punch (Kipling) imagines himself as Mowgli, avenging himself on Southsea by 'trampling it flat and letting the jungle in', with the foster-mother's horrid son Harry reincarnated as the tiger Shere Khan, and various other pointed double-castings - not all of which, I admit, I noticed or understood.

Berkeley's treatment of this material is from the opposite standpoints of allegory and anecdote. The two settings - Southsea and the jungle, fact and fantasy - alternate swiftly (thanks to David Blight's beautifully adaptable yet atmospheric designs). But they don't fuse in the mind; or, to put it another way, they fuse too readily in the music, which maintains a fairly uniform density of pace and texture, with much distinction of detail but less sense of the way wish-fulfilment transcends humdrum, painful reality. Sometimes one is watching an opera about a boy called Punch in Victorian England; sometimes an opera about a man-wolf called Mowgli in India. Yet in a curious way they seem neither distinct nor related.

The music itself offers many pleasures. Berkeley writes admirably for orchestra, and seizes the attention with swift incisive figures bearing motivic potential. The vocal writing is less grateful, admittedly; and the vigorous orchestral textures are apt to make life hard for the singers. But while the music has a genuine operatic thrust, it seldom convinces as the real engine of the drama - as opposed to its more or less sophisticated adjunct. An aspect of this, perhaps, is Berkeley's disconcerting musical serendipity: his memories of other works, other composers (I several times thought: Britten, Tippett, Janacek, and even - at one jolting moment - Lloyd Webber). This may well be my imagination more than his. But the mere idea suggests something about the deeper integration of Berkeley's own style.

Jonathan Moore's production is efficient rather than sparkling. It isn't, perhaps, his fault that the significance of important doublings such as that of the foster-mother Auntirosa with the (male?) hunter Baldeo is not clarified. Nor is it the singers' fault that most of them do a competent rather than brilliant job. Only William Dazeley, as the older Mowgli, has much of a part in any sense of vocal drama, and he makes the most of it. The rest are vignettes, more or less flatly drawn. Philip Sheffield, Ann Taylor Morley, Henry Newman and Fiona Kimm do best, and the conductor Paul Daniel maintains sharp co- ordination, with excellent playing by the English Northern Philharmonia.

Further performances tomorrow and Friday (0242 227979)

(Photograph omitted)