SCARPIA / The long and the short of it: The 'Garden Venture' at Riverside Studios and the BOC Covent Garden Festival featuring 'Soundbites]'

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The Independent Culture
IN KEEPING with sound ecological principles, opera composers are being asked to keep it small, encouraged by initiatives such as the 'Garden Venture' (instigated by the Royal Opera House) and 'Soundbites]' (originating from English National Opera's Contemporary Opera Studio): keep it tight, and you stand a better chance of making it work. That's the wholly laudable idea, at any rate. The 'Garden Venture' brief calls for works of about 30 minutes. 'Soundbites]' is even more stringent, putatively restricting its composers to 10 minutes.

In practice, things work out rather differently. For the 'Garden Venture' (presented at Riverside Studios), Luke Stoneham's Arms for the Maid, to a text by Karen Whiteson, clocked in at around 40 minutes; while, in the context of 'Soundbites]' (presented at the Donmar Warehouse as part of the BOC Covent Garden Festival), David Horne's Jason Field (text by Charles Hart) seemed positively Wagnerian at 25 minutes. Of course, the brief is only a guideline, and if, in exceeding the imposed time-limit, the composer pulls off a theatrical coup, so much the better.

Sadly, neither work could be counted wholly successful. Musically, Stoneham's piece was rich and intriguing, and having a counter-tenor (Slava Kagan-Paley: a falsettist to watch) as Joan of Arc was a nice conceit. But no matter how much the ear was beguiled by the sinuous combination of flute, clarinet and trombone, no matter how impressive Kagan-Paley's control of the precipitous melisma, the text was inaudible, conceivably non-existent. The work even defeated the director, Lucy Bailey, whose usually direct stage-style here became arch and oblique.

Bailey made a better job of Errollyn Wallen's Four Figures with Harlequin (libretto by the composer), in which Wallen's musical eclecticism was put to good use in the service of a drama about nostalgia and memory. The most successful of the 'Garden Venture' pieces was Graham Fitkin's Ghosts, directed by Walter Donohue, who also provided the libretto (after a Paul Auster novella). Existentialism met film noir as a New York detective chased his tail. Fitkin used a narrator to tell much of the story in speech, and his punchy minimalist score was less an opera, more a soundtrack, but the overall effect was fully theatrical if not wholly operatic.

It seems to me that the ancient formula for opera needs to be rewritten. Now it should perhaps be 'Prima la mise-en-scene, poi la musica e poi le parole'. We live in an era saturated with stories, and have become immensely sophisticated in matters of story-telling. What can opera tell us that wouldn't be better told in another medium? Through most of its history, opera has had an informal sense of what is operatic. Now that there is no longer any consensus, what should opera be about?

In some ways there are more pressing problems for opera composers (and librettists) than the loss of a common musical language, for a vivid story well told will usually carry the audience beyond any perceived musical impenetrability. Yet so few new operas do carry us along. I have lost count of the occasions when I've thought that the whole thing would work better as a concert, with the audience following the text on the page: and that is a theatrical failure.

I would hesitate to prescribe any kind of realism for opera, but a little clarity does not go amiss. David Horne's Jason Field, about a child murderer, had the virtue of topicality, but trying to fit tabloid immediacy into a miniature format runs the risk of over-simplification, while the very fact of singing such a story renders it an emotional issue, and that is dangerous territory. Still, David Fielding, charged with designing and directing the whole 'Soundbites]' evening, delivered the necessary intensity, even if the flickering TV screens continually distracted the eye.

Fielding's ingenious direction made a better job of Sally Beamish's Ease (libretto by Edward Kemp), filling in gaps created by the lack of intelligible text. The evening's most successful work was not a 'Soundbite]' at all, but a pre-existing work inserted to add variety. Stephen Oliver's The Garden had a precise sense of mystery, artfully extended by the use of harpsichord in the tiny accompanying ensemble. Here was a piece so naturally theatrical that singing it seemed the only option.

Theatre is never wholly about intelligible text. Moscow Chamber Opera brought a triple bill of Russian works to the Brighton Festival and, rich though it is, Roedean School could not be expected to provide surtitles for its theatre. As a result, Shostakovich's The Gamblers (after Gogol) relied on superbly theatrical music and a vivacious acting style to make its points. Some thrilling Russian basses did their bit, and the unfinished opera was completed by grafting on the composer's private theatrical joke, The Antiformalistic Gallery, grotesquely acerbic and hugely entertaining. Stravinsky's Renard seemed knockabout for the sake of knocking about, but the whole evening could be counted a musical and theatrical success. That is not, by the way, an argument for the abandonment of surtitles, still less for preferring the original language over the vernacular.

Back at the BOC Covent Garden Festival, Chamber Made Opera (at the Donmar Warehouse) demonstrated that you need very little paraphernalia to pull off a coup de theatre. Recital was a showcase for Helen Noonan (with occasional help from accompanists), who played an opera singer remembering her past through snatches of the arias she'd sung: or was the whole thing a fantasy? The piece had a real sense of how opera can pierce the collective heart, as did Jamie Hayes' staging of Mozart's The Magic Flute, which successfully turned Freemasons' Hall into a Sensurround theatre. I can't think of any other use for the place.

The 'Garden Venture' programme runs to 5 June at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, W6 (Box office: 081-748 3354)

(Photograph omitted)