Opera: EAST AND WEST: The Almeida, London

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The programme for Ian McQueen's East and West (the second of this year's Almeida Opera commissions) quotes from an article published in the Independent last month, in which Bhikhu Parekh wrote of "a remarkable refusal by British society to take a critical look at itself" in the light of racial tensions. McQueen's opera, however, is set, not in Britain but in Germany, where a family of Bosnian immigrants is threatened and attacked by skinhead racists.

Why Germany? Is this a magician's legerdemain, diverting attention so that we don't see what's going on under our noses? Or a reminder that racism threatens every part of Europe? Has the librettist Jonathan Moore, who also directs this production, now worked so often in Germany that he feels better qualified to write about that land than his own? Might not German audiences - British too, come to that - think it presumptuous and evasive that a British opera lampoons German neo-Nazism while saying nothing about the mote in its own eye?

Moore also directed and co-wrote the libretto for Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek. Fiona Kimm, Richard Suart and Quentin Hayes sang in Greek - and probably against Moore's better judgement, East and West seems continually in danger of turning into Greek. But where the anger in Greek was palpable, and matched by raucous high spirits, East and West feels thin, its gestures empty and over-determined.

We get Germany after the Wall came down; we get the war in Bosnia; we get religious zealotry and adulterous love: we get a modern Romeo and Juliet; and of course we get a strobe, Nazi salutes and a torrent of effing and blinding.

What should be challenging becomes merely infuriating. McQueen's essentially lyrical style wilts before the onslaught of expletives and stylised violence, for which a quintet of strings supported by oboe, clarinet, tuba and euphonium seems flimsy. As a result, McQueen resorts too readily to hammering percussion. There are affecting arias for the Bosnian mother, well sung by Fiona Kimm; but too much of the vocal writing is under-nourished, too insubstantial to carry the passion the drama requires. You know there are problems when the name Dieter emerges as seven syllables, "Dee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ter". The most telling moments come when the skinhead thugs (sung by Teresa Shaw and Garry Magee) repeatedly drift from guttural snarls to wordless melismas, expressions of the inchoate longing beneath their hatred.

Nor does Moore's direction offer the singers much support. Left to fend for themselves, they too frequently resort to standardised postures and, on several occasions, lacking a physical language adequate to the characters' passions, actually jump up in the air and shake their fists like sulky brats in a cartoon.

Opera needs to be able to tackle the world head on, but if all it can offer is cardboard characters and caricature emotions, it will neither move nor enlighten us.

n Further performances 8pm tonight, 20, 22 July, Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1 (booking: 0171-359 4404)

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