OPERA Param Vir, Almeida, London Primal rhythms and stringless instruments. Nicholas Williams is impressed

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Param Vir's double-bill, Snatched by the Gods and Broken Strings, first heard in Amsterdam in 1992, had its UK premiere at the Almeida Opera Festival on Thursday, the first collaboration between the Festival and the London Sinfonietta. The result was a memorable debut for both composer and ensemble. Arrayed around the performance space by instrumental grouping, the players brought Vir's score to life under conductor Markus Stenz. In clarity of sound, this music shows the imprint of Knussen, Carter and Maxwell Davies, but in its disposition of light and shade, as in its impeccable timing, Vir is his own man.

In isolation, the subjects had looked depressingly static: a Tagore ballad in Snatched by the Gods, a Buddhist legend in Broken Strings. The credit for making them move goes in part to Vir's librettists, William Radice and David Rudkin respectively, but chiefly to his own sense of uninterrupted musical narration.

Snatched by the Gods, set on board ship, is a parable about cruelty; but the action derives ultimately from the dangers of the river. As a cargo of pilgrims sail to their destination, the score maintains a flow of exciting water music, evocative but also charged with tension. Primal rhythms emerged from a plasma of sound that favoured extreme timbres of piccolo and contra-bassoon. Yet scenes were also tightly controlled, marked off by individual colour schemes and carefully dovetailed. Vir's writing for voices, though tough, showed a Brittenish respect for just declamation. Vocal ensembles, choreographed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, were strong, with each character a distinct strand in the web of destiny.

The musicianship of the treble Ben De'Ath as Rakhal dominated Snatched. Richard Suart as the old musician Gutil, was the hero of Broken Strings, which made theatre from the paradox of a stringless instrument making celestial music. To know ourselves, we must make more from less, until from nothing we begin again. That was the lesson for the spectator king - and spectators - in this play-within-a-play, acted out to the accompaniment of fish, elephant and peacock gods in exotic costume. To write these pieces, Vir explained, he had absorbed their moral in his own life. Sincerity can be a bogus element. But here, its qualities were evident to hear.

Further performances: tonight, 15, 17, 19 at 8pm. Booking: 0171-359 4404