Opera: Heroes Don't Dance

Corn Exchange, Cambridge

Most operas fail if those on stage threaten to outnumber those in the audience. Not so with Julian Grant's Heroes Don't Dance, premiered last week at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. To be sure, Saturday's matinee had a healthy enough attendance, but this was a project performed by "the community of South Cambridgeshire, the City of Cambridge, members of the Royal Opera and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House", and it sometimes seemed that the whole of Cambridgeshire was performing, so well peopled was Judith Sharp's production.

It's easy to dismiss such work as therapy, undertaken to secure grants rather than to produce art. Of course, the process of making the opera is as much the project as what we see on stage; but when things go well, the show works in its own right, and, by and large, Heroes Don't Dance succeeded by theatrical criteria: Christina Jones's libretto had a story, Grant's music had the wherewithal to tell it, and the commitment of the cast, child and adult alike, must have touched even the most sceptical spectator.

The Corn Exchange is a wonderful space, and Joanna Parker's designs used every available cranny on, above and beyond the stage, creating unexpected levels and sightlines that continually swept the action back and forth. The orchestra pit was buried centre-stage, which meant that Grant's instrumental writing was sometimes obscured by sheer force of on-stage numbers, and not every singer got their text across, but there are plenty of professionals you can say that about. There were, in fact, two pros here: Jozik Koc, exemplary as the dreamy schoolmaster shown how to grow up by his pupils; and Jillian Arthur, sometimes shrill as his wife, who, at the end of her tether, nearly falls for schoolboy Kevin, suavely characterised by Stuart Bishop.

The stars, though, were Joe Fox, playing asthmatic Jack, whose death precipitates the teacher's crisis, and, as Joe's sister, Caitlien Leigh, possessed of a smoky contralto that might have been better exploited. On the whole, though, Grant gave his singers grateful lines that communicated readily, while his orchestra, conducted by David Syrus, stirred up a thick stew of Fifties ballroom, cheesy Broadway and modern composition. A special word for Jim Dunne, the sign language interpreter, whose balletic translations provided a riveting visual counterpoint.

The Royal Opera's education department works a long way from the harsh spotlight focused on the main company, which is as it should be. I'd like to see what sort of theatre it might generate with music closer to what I imagine the young performers here listen to out of school; but that's not to belittle the achievement of getting the cast to engage with a living composer, albeit one tailoring his style to fit the circumstances.

It's the usual fate of such pieces to disappear from view, since community groups undertaking this kind of project naturally want to create something new. Good news, then, that the Royal Opera is planning to bring Heroes Don't Dance into its new studio theatre in the new house in the new millennium.

Opera: Good Friday

Lincoln College, Oxford

John Caldwell, who lectures in the Oxford Music Faculty, describes his Good Friday as an "opera-oratorio". To be more exact, it is a fine example of that ever more intriguing genre, the semi-staged opera - but making full use of both liturgy and an ecclesiastical setting, as in Britten's Church Parables. Here, however, the audience itself moved, from the chapel of Lincoln College a little way down the Turl to the chapels of Jesus and Exeter, following Christ from his trials before Caiaphas and Pilate to the crucifixion and deposition in Exeter's magnificently appropriate Victorian re-interpretation of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

Considering that Caldwell's basic lingua franca is medieval Latin, this is an amazingly dramatic work. By having the Evangelist (St John) narrate the events in Latin, he deliberately creates the sense of an official version, a formal compte rendu (one thinks of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex); where events are described, such as Jesus being bound, we see them enacted in mime. The effect is the opposite of Bach's emotional, agonised Evangelist sharing the pain with us through the use of the German vernacular.

A large cast frequently interrupts the narration of the Evangelist to assume roles in English (the two male alto "false witnesses" were ghoulishly perfect). Furthermore, the English is often Caldwell's own vigorous adaptation of the Vulgate, so that Peter's denial becomes "I don't know him from Adam" - especially powerful since the parts of Peter and Christ are taken by the same singer. But most telling are the many passages where Latin and English are used simultaneously, as in Christ's examination by Pilate. Here both prisoner and questioner have two simultaneous voices, pursuing almost two different ways of thought in Latin and English; the resolution of the whole interrogation into the single question "Quid est veritas? / What is truth?" had an extraordinary effect.

Perhaps even more telling than the two languages of Caldwell's "narrative" and "action" (his words) is his use of a third element - "commentary". This brings in the Chorus, singing anything from a lengthy introductory chunk of modern Roman liturgy to an exquisite medieval hymn, from a Balliol College manuscript, in which we all joined as the procession passed from Lincoln to Jesus College - "Shall I, moder, shall I do so?".

Caldwell (an authority on plainsong) brings audience and performers together at that point, which is well accompanied by his effective, peripatetic little orchestra (including four violins, but three trumpets and two trombones). By then, these had already justified the title "opera" with a whole series of dramatic effects - the side-drum announcing the arresting soldiers (echoes of Scarpia's "Odi il tamburo?" in Tosca), or the plangent off- stage waltz music before Peter's betrayal. In the "Pilate" scene in Jesus College, the organ richly suggested Roman officialdom, while the tinta of the conclusion, in Exeter Chapel, was altered again by the appearance of the three Mary (their lament based on a medieval Latin sung drama). The soprano voices brought a beautiful sense of solace that underlay the final, tremendous hymn "Pange lingua" - a faint echo of Beethoven's Ninth here in a texture which (on the whole) recalled Penderecki. The work ended with the deposition from the cross, in simple but highly effective mime (Susan Hitch was the discreet producer).

I'm sure I was not alone among last Thursday's first-night audience in hoping that the piece can be recorded before the present forces are dispersed. Heneage Stevenson's Jesus was exceptional, among many fine voices (several one has heard before in Christ Church and Magdalen College Choirs); Benjamin Nicholas and Andrew Jones conducted with authority. A work of the greatest vitality, it will haunt the memory.