Music: Sand-in-your-sandwiches opera

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Remote , a chore to get to, and reliant on an ageing population of retired air commodores who run the local council and the golf club (much the same thing), Aldeburgh Festival would never survive an Arts Council feasibility study; and it's as well that such things didn't exist 50 years ago when Britten set the venture up as a back-garden alternative to life on the road. Like his creation Peter Grimes, Britten was "rooted" in East Anglia: a Muhammad who never cared much for the mountain capitals of the music world. At Aldeburgh, the mountain would come to him. And so it did, in a surreal meeting of international glamour and parish enterprise which has always been the festival's endearing hallmark. Where else could you have found concerts by the likes of Richter and Rostropovich or the world premieres of major operas subsidised by the takings of a seafront second-hand-clothes shop? Only Aldeburgh. Where else would you run into the leading creative figures of the day planning grands projets over crab sandwiches on the beach?

Fifty years on (and 22 since Britten's death), the beach debates repeatedly come round to what a festival so tied to the genius of one man should be doing when the man is no more. Does it become a memorial feast like Bayreuth? A Britten theme park? Or does it take the view that Aldeburgh has always provided a quality, non-ghetto platform for new music and look firmly to the future?

The policy in recent years has been to keep all options open, and this 50th season does the same - launching last weekend with new commissions from Mark-Anthony Turnage, followed by Brittenesque trips down memory lane. To my mind that's how it ought to be. I just wish the "quality" element had been more consistent.

The Turnage was a double-bill beginning with a scena for soprano and orchestra called Twice through the Heart that told the true story of a battered wife who had stabbed her husband and ended up in prison. Turnage originally planned it as an opera, then rewrote it as a concert work, and the result was something that didn't seem to know what it was. Sally Burgess injected elements of drama into her performance but sang from a score, which limited the intensity of what should have been a close- on confrontation with the audience. And the text (by Jackie Kay) was banal: packed dense with cliches that might be true to life but don't stand up to the exposure of musical enlargement and certainly aren't worth the effort Turnage has expended to organise his richly imagined orchestral writing unobstructively around them.

But there was better to come in the unequivocal opera that played next. The Country of the Blind is taken from HG Wells's short story of a mountaineer who discovers a lost world of sightless people and learns, to his cost, that in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is not king but a cripple. It's a neat, strong story; and although Turnage tells it too skeletally - it needs more space, more narrative detail to involve the audience in the characters - there's real dramatic craft in the immediacy and urgency with which he gets straight down to business. The music is arresting but approachable, its colours not so Dayglo-strident as in past works but with Turnage's familiar leanings toward jazz-blues and American vernacular. And its effectiveness is frankly a relief. Nine years ago Turnage made one of the most successful opera debuts of modern times with Greek, but since then there's been nothing for the stage - begging the question whether he could do it again. Country of the Blind proves that he can, that he has plenty more to say. And in this premiere staging he says it with a visually stunning production by Emma Jenkins that plays the mountaineering theme for real and organises the performers vertically rather than horizontally - on pins projecting from a sheer metallic backdrop, or on hanging ropes. Thomas Randle is a physical as well as vocal athlete in the lead role. And Nicholas Kok conducts the orchestra of ENO (the joint-commissioner of the score) impressively. It comes to London next month, at the QEH, and is - it's fair to say - unmissable.

One of the most attractive Aldeburgh fixtures is its annual mid-morning composer-portrait concert at the Jubilee Hall, that wonderfully unprepossessing parish room on the seafront which in years past housed the premieres of some of Britten's greatest works. Last weekend the composer was Michael Berkeley whose disciplined creative curiosity - always testing possibilities but never pushing the conclusions to the point where they lose contact with their audience - was heard in chamber scores such as Catch Me if You Can for wind quintet (an essay on the innocence and cruelty of children's games), a piano solo (Dark Sleep) that tosses and turns through nightmare reminiscences of Tippett and Purcell, and a fascinating string quartet (Magnetic Field) written around an insistent single note that asserts itelf so strongly it becomes as conspicuous by its absence as by its presence.

But the rest of the weekend was dominated by Britten, including a Snape Maltings performance of St Nicholas (premiered in the first Aldeburgh Festival of 1948) that was heartily conducted by Steuart Bedford, well played by the City of London Sinfonia, but feebly sung by a choir which seemed exhausted by the dottily demanding David Bedford piece, A Charm of Joy, that came before. Luckily I'd been to the better and more atmospheric public run-through that took place earlier in the day at Aldeburgh Parish Church. And there, sardined into a back pew, singing lustily through the communal hymns, it felt authentic: an enactment of the Brittenesque ideal that music should be "useful to the living" and extremely English. In the nicest way.

The Englishness of Britten's music has always been open to debate - received wisdom being that he sidestepped English Pastoral at an early age in favour of a tougher, more astringent (and professional) European sound. But another Snape concert, by the Britten-Pears orchestra under Kent Nagano, produced some interesting proofs of Britten starting his career in very Pastoral mode. One was a pair of orchestral Portraits written as a schoolboy: not especially accomplished but depicting a friend in European expressionist terms and (more significant) himself in pure, cow-grazing Englishry. The other was a Concerto for Violin and Orchestra sketched but never completed at the age of 18, just before his Opus 1 Sinfonietta. Finished off by Colin Matthews, this was its first public hearing; and again, the idiom is Pastoral, complete with distant horn-calls and Bax-like romance, albeit texturally thin and sharpened up with semi-jazz. Not great work, but a fragment of the past that helps explain how great work came about, it's due to be recorded and is worth attention.

Not great but worth attention is roughly how I'd describe the first night of the Norwegian Opera Ring Cycle, playing in (of all unlikely venues) the Theatre Royal, Norwich. Why this is happening in Norwich is hard to explain and more a matter of cultural politics than artistic appropriateness; but it's a fantastically brave venture, and Wednesday's Rheingold came off rather well despite a wobbly start. The Norwegian Opera is a modest company - a Scandianavian Opera North - and its line on Wagner is cabaret- scale, staged with quirky, bold but not too radical elan by that old bogyman of British Wagner production (remember his ROH Dutchman?) Mike Ashman. Some of his ideas are tacky (Rhinemaidens in swimming goggles, Donner as a rock star) but he delivers a beautifully effective rainbow bridge and two endearing giants who, until they get the Ring, clearly hold the moral high ground of the piece. Wotan reduces to a power-crazed counterpart of Alberich with a better tailor. And generally the cast is good, with quality singing from the Rhinemaidens, Wotan and Fafner (all Norwegian). The conductor, Heinz Fricke, got some decent ensemble-playing from the orchestra after a provincial start that promised to go nowhere; and what it lacked in anvils (somewhat short of the designated 26) it supplied in effort. All it needed was more substance, vision, focus: the sense of a great enterprise in the making. And a more reasonable performance schedule wouldn't come amiss either. To stretch a single cycle of the four Ring operas over 10 nights is crazy, and must make it as hard for the cast as for the audience to see the cycle through in the holistic, single sweep Wagner intended.

Aldeburgh Festival: see Going Out, opposite. Norwegian Opera: Norwich Theatre Royal (01603 630000), Wed & Sat.

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