OPERA / Worthy intentions under siege: Robert Maycock on Nigel Osborne and Craig Raine's Sarajevo

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The Independent Culture
We can't be objective about the places or people we fall in love with. Any art that results should be immediate - like Poulenc's songs from occupied France, Schumann's piano music for Clara, or South African township songs.

When the place is modern Bosnia, the romance becomes a nightmare. In cold logic, writing an opera will do nothing practical, but the dream persists that it might feed hopes. Does that make it an indulgence? Sarajevo is indulgent in its length: very slow, very dark. Billed as a trilogy, it falls into two parts. First comes an adaptation of Euripides' The Women of Troy, staged by David Freeman amid the debris of war, with a cast mixing Opera Factory people and actors from former Yugoslavia. Nigel Osborne contributes sparse, well-placed gestures from gongs and taped voices.

It is moving to hear these lines spoken out of the Bosnian experience. The politics may be different, but the suffering is universal, and is captured in the accusing stare of Selma Alispahic's Andromache, the raw dignity of Katja Doric's Hecuba, and Rade Serbedzija's soldier. They make the operatic parody of Marie Angel's Cassandra seem superficial. As in Freeman's production of The Bacchae, the staging is drawn out, the lamentation not so much probed as stretched to the limit.

After the interval, opera takes over. The third part, Sand Storm, Osborne's setting of an 'extended cry of pain' by Craig Raine, functions as a concluding ritual to the main business, Sarajevo, which is a compilation of snapshots from life under siege - most of the texts are by local authors. Fragments of personal tragedy are intercut with well-known events of the war: people crossing the street under sniper fire, a cellist playing in the ruins.

Osborne gives it a rootless collage of music, as if piecing together a shattered tradition - waltz fragments, folk melodies, and occasional soaring gestures, tied together by rather dry inventions for instrumental trio. Sand Storm is more sustained and intense, though not helped by concluding a relentlessly sombre score. Few of Raine's words come across.

Good intentions are desperately evident, but what happened to the immediacy? Sarajevo, with its reflections on past events and its assertion of a continuing European musical modernism, falls somewhere between news and history: too late for shock value, too soon for recollection in tranquillity. The irony is that Osborne, whose Bosnian contacts go back to his teens, is doing valuable work behind the scenes, forging links between Bosnian artists and the West. But the creative response is steeped in liberal guilt. It would have made more impact to see a fully Bosnian company present Euripides, or a concert by musicians straight from the firing-line.

That said, the second half is staged with concentrated care. Marie Angel is in her element, putting over awkward vocal lines as if life depended on them, and the visiting actors reveal cabaret-style talents that suggest they would be a bundle of fun in another time, another world.

At the QEH, London SE1, 25, 26 & 28 Aug (Booking: 071-928 8800)

Sponsored by Spero Communications in association with the 'Independent'

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