THE CRITICS : A popular Plague, but not a great one

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It has been disaster week at the Proms: a week of plague, flood, death, and - you'd have thought - good box-office, except that these particular cataclysms were musical not visual, and far from mainstream repertory. So you can safely attribute Monday's capacity audience at Roberto Gerhard's The Plague to the other items on the programme and the fact that it was the first-ever visit of a Spanish orchestra to the Proms, guaranteeing a conspicuous Iberian turnout.

But the reason no Spanish orchestra has been asked to the Proms before is that none has been worth asking. The National Youth Orchestra of Spain which bucked the trend on Monday was promising but not outstanding - the strings better than you'd expect, the wind considerably worse - and its conductor, Edmon Colomer, unremarkable. Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, a lightweight lollipop that stands or falls by whatever substance can be injection-moulded into its middle movement, had nothing to say for itself at all, even with John Williams as a likeably laid-back soloist.

But The Plague was the important thing: a curtain-raiser to this year's centenary celebrations for its composer. Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970) was a Catalan contemporary of Rodrigo (b 1901, still living) and they shared a common background of Romantic Nationalism before their ways divided. Rodrigo stayed put, musically and politically, but Gerhard moved on, ending up a Republican refugee in England after the Civil War. By nature an assimilator, he had studied in the 1920s with Schoenberg, and his mature work managed to combine the Northern methodology of serialism with the melodic licence of the sun- stroked South. His masterpiece, The Duenna, posthumously staged in Madrid in 1992 and subsequently championed by our own Opera North, is the first (and probably last) example of dodecaphonic operetta. And if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, anyone who saw the Opera North staging will know it works.

The Plague, though, has problems. It's a big piece - 45 minutes, scored for chorus, narrator and orchestra - which sets sections of the Albert Camus "conte philosophique" La Peste in English translation. Much of the writing is melodramatic, in the literal sense of speech against music, with a chilling emotional neutrality in the way the narrative presents. It feels like one of those earnest, Reithian anthologies-with-music that the BBC used to commission from Benjamin Britten in the 1930s. It was in fact a BBC SO commission for a South Bank concert in 1963, and must have sounded as disjunct then as it does now: an exercise in rhythm and texture, with overcompensating pictorialisms in the orchestration to supply what the textual treatment can't. In its favour, the control, the poise, the mastery of monochrome minutiae, are compelling. But few speech-and- music marriages take place without a shotgun, and where Peter and the Wolf or Schoenberg's A Survivor From Warsaw get away with it - just - The Plague is dry and lifeless. Michael Pennington's laconically patrician narration for the Prom was probably under orders but didn't help.

The flooding element in Proms Disaster Week involved another readings- with-music piece of a similar vintage. It came as part of three successive concerts last Sunday all devoted to Stravinsky and mostly featuring music where he annexed and rewrote works by other composers (recreation being the abiding theme of this year's Proms). James Wood took his New London Chamber Choir through some unsettling arrangements of Gesualdo motets where a few, subtle strokes of Stravinsky's pen transform the part-writing into something close to, yet remote from, the original. And Oliver Knussen conducted the BBC SO with crystal, and meaningful, clarity in the Stravinsky- cum-Tchaikovsky ballet score The Fairy's Kiss.

But the centrepiece of the day was Stravinsky's The Flood done with much the same forces - Knussen, BBC SO, David Wilson-Johnson - as an Aldeburgh Festival performance and subsequent DG recording last year. The Flood was written in 1963 for American TV: a medium where its dour austerity (punctuated on the night by ads for the shampoo company that sponsored the broadcast) guaranteed instant failure. Thirty years later, in the concert hall, it still seems stiffly pedestrian, despite the rapid turnover of event and peremptory manner with which the delivery jumps between narration and music. You can't help thinking how badly it compares with the raw vitality in Britten's treatment of the same material, Noye's Fludde - or how odd it was that Stravinsky spent so much of his later life stealing subjects from Britten (The Flood, Abraham and Isaac, the Likewake Dirge), as well as librettists (Auden) and even methods (setting God in The Flood for two voices in rhythmic unison, just as Britten had done in Abraham and Isaac). In the circumstances, you wonder what he meant by describing the role of Satan in The Flood as meant for a "high, slightly pederastic tenor", and have to assume it was personal.

John Woolrich's opera The House of Crossed Desires was the big disappointment of the Cheltenham Festival last month; but his new Oboe Concerto is music of a different order and its first performance, superbly played by Nicholas Daniel and the BBC SO under Matthias Bamert in Wednesday's Prom, fairly made my listening week. Re-modelling the one-against-all conflict of conventional concerto form in terms that irresistibly suggest some kind of modern urban metaphor, it sets the oboe as a voice of lyrical fragility against a battery of raw, makeshift percussion (car wheels, oil drums, and what the score calls a sawn-off oxygen cylinder prominently featured). The percussion terminates the piece, with an almighty death-blow that takes both the audience and soloist unawares (cued at the liberty of the conductor); but the oboe-martyr has until that moment held the stage, thanks to a feel for balance in the writing that clears aural space around him and, inventively, gives him his own, small, profiled backing-group of oboes and soprano sax, who underpin him in the way bespectacled young lady vocalists used to do for 1950s pop stars. It's a fine score: clear to follow, cogent, with the mechanistic urgency of early Birtwistle but listener-friendly. Repertory material, I'm sure.

Glyndebourne's final opera of the season is a revival of the Rossini Ermione which made a surprise impression last year in Graham Vick's theatre- of-life production and seems even stronger, tighter and more vital second time around. The 19th-century opera-house set takes the characters a long way from their origins in Ancient Greece, but no more than the conventions of opera seria do already. And Vick's idea of a modern society self-consciously aping the ideals and manners of the classical past fits the piece, and its period, like a glove. Demanding three tenors (no comment) with a head for heights, and a "tigress" (said Rossini) of a coloratura soprano in the title role, Ermione is hard to cast; but Glyndebourne does it handsomely, and Anna Caterina Antonacci is, again, sensational - the voice as beautiful and claws as sharp as in Rossini's dreams. With chiselled chorus singing and some bold brilliance from the LPO under Andrew Davis, it affirms what we forget until reminded: that Rossini could do more than make us laugh.

'Ermione': Glyndebourne (01273 813813), continues Tues & Thurs.