THE CRITICS: MUSIC From Damon Hill to Dorian Gray

'Dorian' isn't the kind of opera anyone writes any more in Britain - but it is the kind we need
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
It isn't easy to reach the foyer of the Monte Carlo Opera just at the moment - like most buildings in a principality en fete de Grand Prix, it has been wrapped in crash barriers to prevent unscheduled automotive access - but those who manage it are confronted by a festive display of statues of characters from Don Giovanni fashioned by someone who has clearly never seen the opera. Don Ottavio, that most reticent of lyric suitors, appears dancing naked on one leg. Donna Anna, casting aside her grief along with her clothes, seems to be having a similarly good time. And combined with the fact that Monte Carlo is the only opera I know where you can play one-armed bandits in the interval (the premises are shared with the Casino), it does all tend to reinforce the idea that this is a place where art lives in thrall to frivolity.

But Monte Carlo does have real claims to distinction. The auditorium is small but magnificent, designed by Charles Garnier who built the Paris Opera. And it has a history of world premieres - Faure's Penelope, Massenet's Cherubin, Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges among them - that made its star shine very brightly earlier this century. Its current (British) intendant, John Mordler, has been trying to revive that creative spirit, and his latest offering is The Picture of Dorian Gray: an Anglo-American project, conducted by Steuart Bedford, directed by John Cox, and composed by Lowell Liebermann - a New Yorker not as yet well known here although it's only a matter of time. Liebermann's past work has been dominated by prestige commissions in conventional genres (flute concertos for James Galway, piano concertos for Stephen Hough) and it carries an impassioned lyrical appeal destined to attract anyone who has done minimalism, liked it guiltily, and now wants to move on. Which is to say, the writing is not minimal but it does use minimal techniques (vocal lines streched widely across instrumental ostinati and the like) to build a big-boned language of intelligent proto-Romanticism.

A useful British comparison might be Robin Holloway, but Liebermann is more eclectic - taking vigorously but purposefully from Janacek, Stravinsky, Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer, and above all Britten. In many ways, Dorian Gray is an opera Britten should have composed himself - it would have made a nice companion for Death in Venice and The Turn of the Screw - and my reservation about the way Liebermann handles it is that he doesn't turn the screw enough. At least, not with the lethal precision of an Aldeburgh masterpiece. But Dorian does have a formal tightness that proves effective in performance. Underlying the score is a 12-note row which treads stealthily through the writing like a (Brittenesque!) passacaglia. It symbolises Dorian's picture and, predictably, distorts. But running parallel with the passacaglia idea, and magnifying it, is the fact that Liebermann has adapted Oscar Wilde's text into 12 scenes, each governed by a note in the row. So there is a dark and stifling sense of enclosure; and a sense, also, of Dorian moving circuitously but certainly to his death as the inexorable conclusion.

The opera is sung in English; the cast is largely American and good, with an outstanding central performance from Jeffrey Lentz, a young, light- voiced lyric tenor who makes his British debut at Glyndebourne this summer singing Matteo in Arabella. Steuart Bedford, who knows a thing or two about this kind of repertory, conducts impeccably. The staging is superb. And my gut reaction is that although Dorian isn't the kind of opera anyone writes any more in Britain, it is the kind we need. Too intimate for ENO, it would work at Opera North. Or as a festival production at Edinburgh.

The femme fatale who carries moral strength as well as danger in her soul is a familiar figure in opera. From Kundry to Carmen she appears, with appropriate variations, time and again; and Tchaikovsky, who was transfixed by Carmen, made his own addition to the catalogue. Her name was Kuma, and she was the heroine of an opera alternatively called The Enchantress or The Sorceress, written in 1887 (around the time of the 5th Symphony) and a mature work, although one which has never made it into the repertory. It had certainly never been staged in Britain until New Sussex Opera did it last week as part of the Brighton Festival; and as someone whose enthusiasm for the rarer Tchaikovsky operas (ie. anything beyond Onegin and Pique Dame) was fired by seeing Cherevichki at Wexford the other year, I was looking forward to it.

But The Enchantress proved a trial: not because the score is demanding, but because it ambles in such a leisurely way through its not very gripping story. The eponymous enchantress is an innkeeper - a prototype for Puccini's Minnie - who ensnares the heart of everyone on stage and proves fatal to a fair number of them. If that sounds forbidding, the music is mostly amiable and leans towards rollicking folk-genre chorus scenes, which the NSO director John Lloyd Davies staged rather effectively, with a dash of Chagall in the designs. In fact, the whole presentation was highly professional (NSO is actually semi-pro) with good orchestral playing under David Angus. But the piece ultimately hangs on the central character. Tchaikovsky envisaged her as an embodiment of Goethe's "eternal feminine" but failed to give her the musical or dramatic means to be anything of the sort - with the result that there's a hole at the heart of the piece that NSO's Virginia Kerr, try as she may, can't fill. Professionalism here isn't enough. It would take inspiration, and some ruthless cuts, for The Enchantress to cast any lasting spells.

Either the ENO production of Handel's Ariodante has firmed up since it premiered in 1993, or I've warmed to David Alden's stage style, but second time around it strikes me as a fascinating piece of work. The images are haunting, heavy with surreal sensuality and sexual tension; the singing is a joy, with glorious performances from Joan Rodgers and Ann Murray (whose tendency to harshness when she pushes the tone is held beautifully in check through Ariodante's "Scherza infida", surely the most heart-rending number in the whole Handelian canon); the choreography (of which there is a lot, because when Handel wrote the opera his chief marketing tool was the famous dancer Marie Salle) is tighter; and Ivor Bolton does a superbly period-conscious job as conductor, overcoming the problems of creating an intimate baroque ensemble style from a deep-sunken pit.

But one objection remains: this is still a staging which tells you at every turn that the producer knows better than the composer. The action persistently resists the implications of the music; and in place of Handel's circular emotional groundplan of happiness-misery-happiness that sets the contour of the three acts, Alden substitutes a near-unbroken darkness. It all runs with the disturbing beauty of a fashionably coutured nightmare about female violation. Very interesting, but not the piece.

Brighton Festival (01273 709709) to 26 May. 'Ariodante': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300) continues Wed & Fri.

Comments