Orpheus in the fashion world; MUSIC

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN choreographers turn into opera directors you have to be prepared for a shift in focus from mouth to foot, foreground to background, but not as much as in ENO's new Orpheus and Eurydice. The director, Martha Clarke of the dance company Pilobolus, all but annihilates the piece in animated chic.

Of course, Orpheus allows for a significant dance input. Historically it was an almost equal-terms collaboration between Gluck the composer, Calzabigi the librettist and Angiolini the ballet master; and there's every reason for Clarke to fill the stage with her own kind, who cut striking, fashionably black-clad figures on an open-set design, and later turn into celestial naturists for the Elysium scene. Chorus members never look that good, so Clarke tidies them away offstage; and style, pure style, is left to rule, OK.

But what a countertenor singing Gluck is doing in the middle of it all is hard to say. Clarke doesn't tell you; and the way the solo singers seem like extras, left to do their own thing, suggests she hasn't worked it out herself. It's a problem - especially for Amor, which is the sort of awkward role productions need to take a view about. This doesn't. Nor does the lame singing translation it uses, which is new but not so you'd notice.

Jane Glover conducts the original, more austere 1762 version of the score with a sensitivity that surivives occasionally stodgy chorus textures and sour instrumental sounds. Helen Williams (Amor) and Lesley Garrett (Eurydice) sing elegantly. And despite perceptible anxiety in "Che faro", that spotlit moment when the audience wakes up, Michael Chance's Orpheus is beautifully delivered, with a clear, firm tone and careful diction. But it's not enough to stop you feeling short-changed by a show that doesn't rise beyond designer opera.

Misper, the new children's opera at Glyndebourne, is design-led opera, with sets and costumes by Alison Chitty that rank alongside her work on Covent Garden's Billy Budd and Gawain as creative genius unsurpassable. But Misper has more to offer than good looks; and whether or not it really counts as opera - "musical" might be closer to the truth - it's an impressive and affecting piece of work which justifies the risk Glyndebourne took in commissioning it. Directed by Stephen Langridge as a synthesis of the old and new in children's fantasies - fairy-tale exotica and TV-series paranormal - it plays like a magic-realist episode of The Bill. Librettist Stephen Plaice is actually one of The Bill's screenwriters, hence the piece's title and knowledge of police slang: Misper means Missing Person, in this case, an ancient Chinese philosopher who writes the future but damages the manuscript, and so has to time-travel to 1999 to put things right.

Stephen Lunn's score, driven by Broadway vamps and rock-band rhythms, owes too much to Stephen Sondheim, but blossoms into cinematic glamour for the Chinese episodes, which blare, seduce and dazzle like a James Bond soundtrack. And there are some catchily emphatic numbers for the largely children's cast to sing. It also offers golden moments for the adults, led with great panache by Omar Ebrahim: a true all-round performer whose star qualities have never quite clinched the career he deserves. The only pity is that Misper doesn't come to London. It should have a life beyond the Sussex Downs.

A project that will be coming to London is the City of Birmingham Touring Opera production of Britten's three Church Parables,which opened at Birmingham Symphony Hall last Sunday and carries controversy in its wake. Where ENO's Orpheus shows how choreographers turn stage director, these Parables show how stage directors turn biographer, making a piece speak for its author as a window on his inner life. Britten's inner life was haunted by small boys, and small boys accordingly haunt CBTO's stagings - dressed in 1940s schoolwear and leaving little to the imagination of anyone who's read his Humphrey Carpenter.

You'll appreciate from this detail that CBTO doesn't entirely follow the stylistic conventions Britten devised for the Parables when they were written in the 1960s. The idea, then, was to play them as a Western response to the austerely ritual intensity of Japanese Noh drama, with modest forces, severe economy of musical language, and the conceit that the performers are monks participating in a liturgical mystery. All three Parables come framed by plainsong, to which the monks enter and leave. And the movement is meant to be stylised: "executed," said the original director Colin Graham, "with intention".

But the intention was never for all three to play at a single sitting, as here. You can have too much austerity, too many monks; and realising the problem, CBTO tries to address it by varying the playing style, with a different stage director for each Parable. As a result, only "Curlew River" plays ritualistically, in a conventional but moving production by Toby Wilsher. The other two are radical and ditch the form. The other two are where the boys come in.

In "The Prodigal Son" I don't object to them. It's a strong staging by Mark Tinkler that translates the story into belt-and-braces H E Bates, and takes the confessional line with good reason - because the musical symbolism here really does admit the possibility that Britten saw himself as the tempted Son, with small boys as the bait. Portraying the Tempter as attractively as he portrayed Peter Quint in Turn of the Screw, Britten possibly saw this as a parable not about denying desire, but about acknowledging and coming to terms with it: the quest for peace and wholeness that stalks his music through to Death in Venice. Mark Tinkler obviously thinks so, and presents the argument persuasively.

"The Burning Fiery Furnace" is a different matter, and there's no good reason for the paedophile subtext Sean Walsh builds into a production that plays like an unruly Oxbridge black-tie dinner and packages its ideas without the conviction of Tinkler's "Son" or the intensity of Wilsher's "River". But even so, there are superb performances - as is the case throught the Parables, with Jeremy Huw Williams a bold, bluntly assertive Ferryman, Quentin Hayes a perfectly cast Elder Son, and Neill Archer a heart-breaking Madwoman (despite a wig that makes him look like the raddled drag-queen Britten didn't want). The small instrumental ensemble, drawn from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, plays with illuminating virtuosity. And overall, CBTO's big risk in running the Parables together pays off. It's a fine achievement.

I only wish it played in more congenial circumstances. Britten specified a church - partly for the resonance which his floating instrumentation and deliberately blurred non-alignment of parts was designed to exploit, but also for the sense a church gives of communal enterprise. Theatres and concert halls do not; and London's Queen Elizabeth Hall certainly won't, when the Parables play there on Good Friday.

'Orpheus': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Wed. 'Parables': QEH, SE1 (0171 960 4242), 28 Mar.

Comments