OPERA / Wilde tamed: The Nightingale and the Rose - Almeida Opera

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The Independent Culture
New opera fails if we come out wishing we'd been at a concert performance that allowed us to follow a printed text instead. Elena Firsova's The Nightingale and the Rose, the premiere of which opened Almeida Opera, derives from Oscar Wilde's short story. A gawky and self-centred student (sung by Philip Sheffield) complains that his love will only grant him a dance on presentation of a red rose. His garden has only white roses. Pitying him, the Nightingale (Carol Smith) sacrifices herself so that her blood will stain a white rose red. Mindless of her martyrdom, the Student takes the newly red rose to the girl (Rachael Hallawell), who, alas, is too fickle to accept it.

In a statement reprinted in the programme, Wilde said that he intended this sweetly sardonic story to 'deal with modern problems in a mode that is ideal and not imitative'. There is no narrative mode less imitative than opera, but even opera requires drama of some kind. Although Firsova provides parts for an octet of Roses, she offers little in the way of confrontation between her characters. The drama becomes little more than a sequence of soliloquies separated by instrumental interludes.

Small wonder that the attention wandered to the side of the stage, where David Parry conducted the Almeida Ensemble. Opera may need instruments, but when watching them becomes more involving than watching the stage, something is wrong.

If the characters would only talk to each other, the director Caroline Gawn might have found it easier to hold her audience. She and her designer, Julian McGowan, envisioned a fairyland where heavy greasepaint and fluttering rose petals added the camp irony Firsova evidently intended. Yet it was too easy to agree when the wildly posturing Student suggested that 'Everybody knows the arts are selfish.'

In the event, it was rather whimsical of Firsova to set poems by Christina Rossetti for the Nightingale's dying song: so high, so long were the notes bestowed on Carol Smith that text became vocalise, albeit rather lovely. Philip Sheffield, although pushed into areas his voice only negotiates with strain, captured the Student's amour propre and Rachael Hallawell whined and pouted glamorously in the brief scene with the Girl.

Firsova's lyrical talent is most evident in the instrumental writing, in a plaintive theme for violin and oboe, or in the shimmering interludes that transport us between scenes. But interludes do not an opera make, and The Nightingale and the Rose seemed all too private a drama. Just a little selfish, in fact.

Also 16, 18, 20 July, Almeida Theatre, N1 (071-359 4404)

The Almeida Opera Festival runs to 23 July. It includes the premiere of Jonathan Dove's 'Siren Song' (opens 15 July)