When the fans know best

MUSIC; Brixtonia Opera, Covent Garden Festival, London Koanga, QEH / RFH2, London
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The Independent Culture
St Clement Danes Church gave Brixtonian Opera's annual showcase of young black singers a sombre setting - soon happily overrun by the dressy audience's orgy of cultural bonding. But apart from the gay white men, who went? On a rough head count, about the same number of smart-looking black families - and they made it noisily clear that they were having an even better time.

These were high-powered performers. One star turn was Alison Buchanan, soprano winner of the Jessye Norman Prize. Roderick Williams, a fluent and English-sounding baritone, came up with a short, witty song credited to himself, and Denise Hector made her vocal mark with taut control. We will hear more of Josephine Amankwah, and Angela Caesar, sampling the Victoria de los Angeles repertoire with aplomb, has already developed fast. Antonia Adellita showed off some spectacular unaccompanied ornamentation, Colenton Freeman was the very football hero of an old-fashioned Italian tenor. One pianist, Spencer Boney, took on Balakirev's Islamey and won; another, Allyson Devenish, accompanied with scarcely a note out of time or out of character.

Would you hear this quality, this excitement, so cheaply and in such an unpretentious event, if the singers weren't all black? Chelsea Opera Group's solo line-up for Koanga at the QEH next night was no match for them. By a wondrous irony, the sea of white faces was there to make the case for Delius's neglected opera about rebellious slaves in the Deep South. But then Koanga has never been taken up as a liberal cause like Porgy and Bess.

Even the fans admit it lacks a sense of theatre. They tempt you with one famous, delicious dance, "La Calinda". They don't tell you how ineptly the composer tackled his subject. How could he live on a plantation and set happy-go-lucky choruses with twanging banjo, like a minstrel show? Never mind that a white mistress addresses one slave with the line, "Palmyra, do be sensible" - it goes deeper than a duff libretto. The essence of the music flunks the story's tensions and violence, smothering them in bogus sensuality.

If you don't think too hard you can enjoy some sumptuous ensembles which David Lloyd-Jones conducted boldly, the mainly amateur orchestra and chorus right with him. There's less for the principals. Susannah Granville rose to Palmyra's one moment of genuine feeling, Susan Bickley was a tower of vocal strength, but John Rawnsley and Ian Caley went off the boil.

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