Singers led by the notions: Producer's opera might be fun for producers but what's it like for the actors? Mark Pappenheim asked the cast of David Alden's The Duel of Tancredi and Clorinda

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Believe everything you read in the press, and you might well be wary of working with David Alden. His string of controversial ENO productions - the 'chainsaw massacre' Mazeppa, 'fickle finger of fate' Boccanegra, 'death's head' Masked Ball and 'light bulb' Bluebeard's Castle - have earned him a reputation as one of the high priests of 'producer's opera', that mythical school of directors regularly accused of staging their own 'concept' rather than 'the work itself' (whatever that might be) and of dragooning casts into acting out their perverted personal fantasies at the expense of the singers' own 'artistic integrity' and 'urge for self-expression'.

True, some singers do have their difficulties with Alden - not because he orders them about but because he refuses to spoon-feed them with pre-prepared ideas. According to the soprano Patricia Rozario, making her ENO debut in Alden's new staging of Monteverdi's The Duel of Tancredi and Clorinda (opening next week in a double-bill with Bluebeard's Castle), 'David doesn't say very much. He expects you to feed him ideas and then he picks what he likes.'

Not that he is short of ideas himself. 'In fact he had lots,' says Rozario of their first rehearsal. 'I remember he said we could even do a concert performance - just stand and sing it. We were trying to pin him down - do you think it's this? Do you think it's that? - and he just said, 'Ah, maybe. I don't know.' He didn't want to decide. And in some ways that was good. At the start of rehearsals it's quite good to keep all your options open.'

Some singers clearly find this silence more unsettling than others. The tenor Paul Nilon, who sings the taxing role of the Narrator, remembers that first day of rehearsals as 'terrifying but very liberating - letting instincts to words and music out'. But by the second week he was becoming frustrated at the lack of conventional direction. Hungry for feedback, he finally challenged Alden, only to be told: 'If I don't say anything, it's fabulous.' For Rozario, Alden's silence speaks louder than words: 'You can see he's feeling the emotion, the intensity that he wants. He's almost in a state of dance some of the time. And he sings a lot, which is lovely. He knows the music backwards.'

But even improvisation needs a basis, and although Alden began by announcing that he didn't even know how he was going to get the singers on and off the set, he did at least give them a set to start with. A shallow letter-box slit, seven feet up a sheer white wall, it had no obvious way on or off (other than a leg-up from stage management) and nothing inside except a white PVC leatherette sofa.

Yet, in its anonymity, isolation and inaccessibility, it clearly contained important clues to what, retrospectively, will be seen as Alden's 'concept', while also providing a perfect visual parallel to Monteverdi's text. Like the set, poised in a void midway between stage and proscenium arch, The Duel - a slice of 16 strophes lifted straight from Tasso's massive epic, Jerusalem Liberated - presents a moment out of time. Without introduction, it instantly involves us in a confrontation between characters whose past and future history is a mystery.

The characters do, of course, have a past in Tasso: Tancredi is a Christian knight, Clorinda the saracen warrior- maid with whom he has fallen in love but whom he kills, having failed to recognise her under cover of darkness and in her masculine disguise. Monteverdi, though, plunges us in medias res. But taking a hint from the composer's own account of the work's first performance in Venice in 1624, Alden has prefaced The Duel with a selection of other Monteverdi madrigals - not, one suspects, simply, as he maintains, to fill out a shortish first half (The Duel lasts only 20 minutes) and to give the singers of Tancredi and Clorinda (who have only a few bars each) a little more to do, but as a means of establishing the emotional background for the conflict to come. Yet, if there was a deeper concept behind his choice, Alden wasn't telling: 'finding a path through the madrigals' became one of the singers' key challenges.

One directorial lead Alden did give, however, was to put the focus firmly on the figure of the Narrator. Where most directors see the challenge of the piece as being how to stage the battle (invariably ending up with a display of slow-motion sword-fighting), Alden's interest lies not in the battle itself but in the narrator's description of it. For him, it's an exercise in 'telling' not 'showing'. In this, he is only echoing Monteverdi's use of Tasso as a pretext for trying out new techniques in musical narrative - the so-called stile concitato, with its pioneering use of imitative string tremolo and pizzicato (for galloping horses and clashing weapons) - rather than as a new form of mime. If, for Monteverdi, the question was how to tell the story musically, for Alden the question became: who is the storyteller? And why is he telling us this story of a nocturnal fight-to-the-death between lovers who no longer recognise one another?

One answer, clearly, is that it is about a relationship that gets out of hand. Having planted this possibility - even suggesting that it could go as far as rape and murder - Alden effectively let the singers get on with it, editing the results. At an early rehearsal, Ventris recalls, 'we did struggle physically and I remember hitting Pat and lifting her up and banging her head against the wall. But David always wanted less.' By the end there was no physical contact at all between the combatants. But, says Rozario, her head-banging was all part of the process - 'because, at the next rehearsal, the slate was clean and we started afresh'. Alden's impulse towards abstraction went even further: at the very height of the battle, the two warriors sink from sight behind the (now reversed) sofa. As Ventris says: 'People's imaginations are always far wilder than anything you can show on stage.'

Entrances and exits evolved in much the same way. Where Ventris had begun crawling up the front of the set - 'slowly drawing myself up as if being formed from the ground' - he has ended up progressing downwards, entering down a ladder and eventually sliding off the front of the set; whereas Rozario now rises from behind the sofa and eventually exits upwards, on a set of rungs, as the dying Clorinda's soul rises to heaven. Rozario insists that these seemingly inevitable symmetries are genuinely spontaneous (neither ladder nor rungs were there in Nigel Lowery's original designs): 'You see the patterns afterwards.'

Conspiracy theorists may say that the patterns were there in Alden's mind all along. After all, the best way of getting your own ideas across is to make people think they thought them up for themselves. But then, if that's how to get committed performances, it's not a bad concept for a director.

'The Duel' opens at ENO on Wed. See listings below for details

(Photograph omitted)