Music: It's a pretty slow experiment
Sunday 21 June 1998
In a sense that's par for the course with Gavin Bryars, a soulful maverick of modern British music whose antecedents lie in cabaret jazz and romantic minimalism. Famous for one piece, Jesus's Blood Never Failed Me Yet, the quavering, vodka-sozzled voice of an anonymous tramp on loop-tape, his work is slow, repetitive, harmonically simplistic. Personally I'm not a fan, and I find Doctor Ox invertebrate, a shapeless, spineless lump of aural jelly. But there's interest in the halo of texture it builds from a small orchestral ensemble (exotically enhanced with amplified jazz-bass) and in the vocal writing, which features two countertenors upfront and two attractive set-pieces: a haunting love-duet in Act I, and a reflective monologue in Act II that sounds like slow-motion Mahler.
But slow is the word. An imaginative composer could make the point about the dullness of this town in 20 minutes. Bryars takes two and a half hours - a figure I compute with reference to the fact that even when the "experiment" is supposed to have got things going, it hasn't. Energised and forward- thrusting music isn't Bryars's metier. Nor is clear delivery of text, which means that too much of Blake Morrison's charming libretto gets lost (read it before you go). Atom Egoyan's direction doesn't help much: done like a cinematic dreamscape, it's a pretty picture that doesn't tell the story or particularly serve the text. And there's scant demarcation of character. That Act II monologue assumes some audience sympathy with the soprano who sings it, but when she emerges from the crowd into sudden spotlit focus, you can only wonder who she is.
She is in fact Valdene Anderson, singing the love-interest role of Suzel with heartfelt radiance; and there's fine singing too from Della Jones, Ryland Angel and Bonaventura Bottone - who takes the title role with agile brilliance. There's much to like about the show: it just won't bear repeated listening.
Countertenors are big business now that the cycle of operatic fashion is returning to the way things were in Handel's time. Then, it wasn't tenors who ruled the stage, but castrati. And their claim to all-heroic lead roles was so absolute that when the barber-surgeons of the Neapolitan song-schools stopped putting small boys to the knife, Handelian opera just died. Women in trousers were the only alternative, and not a satisfactory one for parts that tended to be the 18th-century equivalent of Sylvester Stallone on Viagra. So it's no coincidence that the great Handel revival of our own times has gone hand in hand with the rise of the virtuoso countertenor, whose high-altitude accomplishment without testicular sacrifice is a happy solution to the problem.
Andreas Scholl is arguably the happiest solution of them all, these days: the countertenor of the moment, and a serious catch for Glyndebourne, where he has just opened as Bertarido in a new production of Handel's Rodelinda. This is in fact his stage debut, and his acting isn't fluent. But the voice is all there, and it's captivating: tender-sweet and generally exemplary in style, security and taste. Which is more than I can say for some of the singing in this questionable show.
Authoritatively conducted by William Christie, with period (Age of Enlightenment) instruments in the pit, it's staged by Jean-Marie Villegier as a Twenties not-so-silent film of high-societal intrigue - washed in the muted grey- pink of hand-coloured photos, and with the initial action set outside a Mayfair nightclub. When Rodelinda emerges and sings that she's lost her husband, you get the impression that she's lost him at blackjack. But otherwise it's an engaging idea; and so, in principle, is the enlargement of the singers' gestures into an ironic parody of silent-movie melodrama. Irony in Handel is fair game, and there's scarcely a director these days who doesn't play it. But the secret of success is confidence, a steady hand; and what you see here is half-hearted and awkward - especially as undertaken by Eduige (an odd character at the best of times) who becomes a manic hybrid of a Walt Disney witch and the Queen Mother in early life. With rancid singing to match, it isn't Louise Winter's greatest hour (or three) on stage. And it's not the best night either for Anna Catarina Antonacci, whose strong, hard tonal impact brings excitement to the title role, but without period finesse.
On the plus side, though, is the lithe American tenor of Kurt Streit, who sings the semi-villain Grimoaldo with idiomatic assurance. And there's Glyndebourne itself, the intimate, baroque-style auditorium of which couldn't be bettered as a venue for this kind of opera. Broadly speaking, Handel is a joy here, even when the detail comes equivocally.
A sense of place is one of the chief attractions of the Aldeburgh Festival, which opened last weekend with a production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the tiny seafront Jubilee Hall, which was where the opera premiered in 1960. I've always wondered how it ever squeezed into the space. There may not be a chorus, apart from the child-fairies (and Britten only had eight of them), but the orchestral forces are at least medium-scale, and a lot for a pit the size of a cupboard in a hall that seats 300. But last weekend's staging, by students from the Britten-Pears School, proved that it does fit, and with an intimacy that addresses all the problems which arise when the piece is done in a conventional house. You hear the children, you hear the countertenor Oberon, you get the text, with all its felicitous little miracles of word-setting and metrical irregularity, with perfect sharpness. What you didn't get in this case, though, was magic. Michael Rosewell's conducting was rough, the production values were low, and the design was a kind of off- the-peg abstraction, with costumes that were off-the-peg C&A. The only consolation came with two strong voices in the cast - a big Bottom (so to speak) from Timothy Mirfin, and a fine if slightly frumpish Helena from Sarah Pelletier.
On the concert platform, Aldeburgh's opening weekend leaned toward America, starting with Dawn Upshaw being cute and none too credible in Schumann, but settling into home territory with a fascinating (and fabulously well- sung) cycle by John Harbison called Mirabai Songs. This is the sort of repertory on which Upshaw is unrivalled. And here, with pianist Richard Goode and the impeccable acoustic of Snape Maltings, you could ask for no more. It was Aldeburgh at its classic best, setting standards that continued later with a BBCSO concert under Oliver Knussen in the same hall.
The main work here was the First Piano Concerto by Peter Lieberson (an American who has become part of Aldeburgh's transatlantic family), with Peter Serkin (ditto) as soloist. In fact, it was just the opening movement of the concerto, which stands alone as a piece in its own right and pursues an almost Ivesian path through dense orchestral landscapes that swallow the piano but excite the ear. A good piece. As was Fire, Lieberson's massive but well-proportioned orchestral miniature, which had its European premiere after the interval.
The next day there came still more Lieberson, in a chamber concert by Peter Serkin "and friends", devoted to the memory of the late Toru Takemitsu - another member of that extended Aldeburgh family, gathered in by Oliver Knussen during his past decade as the Festival's artistic director. Presumably they'll all be passing on when he retires at the end of this season. Next year the young composer Thomas Ades takes charge, reinforcing the general (but unhelpful) idea people seem to have of him as the New Britten. It's too early to predict what he will make of his appointment, but it's bound to generate some rumblings on the beach.
'Ox': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Wed, 30 Jun & 3 Jul. 'Rodelinda': Glyndebourne (01273 81381), Mon & Thurs, & in rep to 24 Jul. Aldeburgh Festival (01728 453543), to 28 Jun.
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