performance Experimentum Mundi, Almeida Theatre :REVIEW

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The Independent Culture
Opera houses are often frequented by people who like to gaze at men working. Experimentum Mundi must be the first time their dream has risen to the stage as the entire evening's action. For the 45 minutes of Giorgio Battistelli's extravaganza, a crowd of rude mechanicals went noisily about their business on the cramped Almeida stage. Coopers hammered, masons chipped, cobblers cobbled, grinders struck sparks, a pastry cook cracked eggs, all with tremendous panache and a dogged energy. Around the auditorium, faces divided three ways - amused, bewildered or just plain scornful - but if there was a blank countenance in Thursday's full house, it was well hidden away.

Battistelli is a composer and the performance was part of this year's Almeida Opera weeks, so the point was musical even though there wasn't any singing. The odd man out among the workers was a percussionist, who played quite freely. A conductor, Battistelli himself, took up a conventional podium position and stepped down again. He removed a dust sheet to reveal the cook, all set up at his bench to make pasta, and over the next few minutes, between return trips to the podium, unveiled the rest of the cast. Up in the roof perched Ian McDiarmid, whose job was to read items from Diderot's Encyclopedie, translated by Amanda Holden, about the trades on view. As the noise built up, so McDiarmid had to raise his voice, first with occasional heavy emphasis, then with more and more exaggerated swoops and yells, eventually passing way beyond this surreal Basil Fawlty-like state into a manic gabble.

It looked like one of John Cage's extravaganzas, but this was Cage without the anarchy because the conducting was for real. Assorted bashings came together in unison, accelerated, then cut off to a tool-scraping solo. In a sort of symphonic development, various chamber groupings of the crafts came together in rhythmic interplay with the drums. Two grinders pedalled in, teetering on their high stools as they drove their belts and honed their blades. A babble of Italian names came through the loudspeakers in the evening's only hint of a role for women.

Pretentious? You bet your best kitchenware. On one level it's a parody of musical form, art about art in the old-fashioned Seventies music-theatre way. As a satire on orchestras and musical routine it develops a couple of teeth, even though that's the oldest comedy routine in the book. Any social criticism was keeping itself pretty muted, while the programme note compared it with Indian painting and magic ritual before settling on the phrase "scenic concerto".

Think about it too hard and the whole farrago starts to seem offensive and a little exploitative. But although the Italian artisans glared balefully at the audience when they had nothing to do, they all seemed to have had a whale of a time and the house was in high spirits. It was an amazing spectacle and probably best left at that.

The Almeida Opera season continues to 22 July at the Almeida Theatre, London N1. (Box-office: 0171-359 4404)