OPERA / Shadows of a dream: Nick Kimberley on Matthus's Song of Love and Death

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The Independent Culture
WE DREAMERS might fantasise that revolution could - just possibly - begin in the opera house. It won't. These days revolutionaries head straight for the TV station. If they bother with the opera house, it will be to raze it to the ground.

Which is where Siegfried Matthus's Cornet Christoph Rilke's Song of Love and Death begins. Matthus wrote it for the 1985 re-opening of Dresden Opera House, destroyed by Allied firebombs in 1945. Having decided to dramatise the Rilke poem that provides his title, Matthus found a line elsewhere in Rilke in which an inferno engulfs a theatre and its audience. That image, his opening scene, sets the tone for the piece, at once a jeremiad on war's obscenity, a requiem for the institution of opera, and a prayer for a new world, and a new opera.

In a useful talk before Glyndebourne Touring Opera's UK premiere on Monday night, Antony Peattie noted the poem's oneiric lack of transitions. They are the basis of Matthus's dramaturgy, which consists of a sequence of emotive tableaux chantants depicting the progress of a young soldier from youth through a brief spasm of love (a single night with an enigmatic Countess) to death in battle.

German soldiers carried Rilke's poem in both World Wars. It was seen to glorify death for the Fatherland. Matthus - and Rilke - saw it as a lament. The opera is suffused with sadness and anger. The orchestra is tiny but, with four percussionists, makes its presence felt. The horn dominates, seemingly carrying the whole weight of German opera. The stringed instruments are harps and electric bass guitar, the latter skilfully woven into the textures so that at one moment it shadows the flutes, the next it echoes the harps.

Shadows and echoes re- emerge on stage: both Christoph (mezzo) and the Countess have Gedankenstimme (thought-voices) revealing more than the characters can know. It sounds confusing but in Aidan Lang's thoughtful staging the divisions are clear, even if insufficient text comes across.

The dominant presence is the chorus, sometimes milling clumsily but singing with power. Julie Unwin as the Cornet, and Beverly Mills as his Inner Voice, sang and moved with great confidence and, though words were sometimes indistinct, feelings were not. Smaller roles got full weight, and conductor Martin Andre was justified in bringing the 12-piece orchestra on stage for a final bow: the sounds from the pit were complex but exciting. While the opera's musical language has an immediate effect, the drama is harder to absorb, but the impact is there. GTO deserves gratitude - and even a little Arts Council encouragement - for its willingness to promote new opera.

Tonight, Saturday, Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Ave EC1 (071- 278 8916); then on tour

(Photograph omitted)