The life of the Tree

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Verdi was 33 when, in 1847, he wrote the first draft of Macbeth, presented last week in concert performances by the Royal Opera as part of its Verdi Festival. It was his 10th opera. Roderick Watkins is 33 this year, and The Juniper Tree, a co-production between the Munich Biennale and Almeida Opera, is his first opera. The reason this Macbeth is at Covent Garden is to give us the chance to hear Verdi's first thoughts, rather than the more familiar revision of 1865, by which time Verdi was a mature composer of international renown. Will The Juniper Tree find itself revived in 2015, and if it does, will changing style and Watkins's own maturing talent lead him to the kind of fundamental changes Verdi made to Macbeth?

There's no point in using Verdi as a stick with which to beat contemporary composers, but it says something about opera culture that those of Watkins's age count themselves lucky to have the opportunity to write one opera; writing 10 is not on the cards. As for the chances of any new opera still being in the repertoire in 20 years' time, recent evidence suggests that it's unlikely. Regardless of how successful it is, it usually gathers dust after its first performances. (One notable exception is Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain, which gained substantial power between its 1991 premiere and its 1994 revision).

Well, if composers spent time worrying about revisions and performances in 20 years' time, they'd never write a note now. What matters is that The Juniper Tree is absorbing and dramatic: not a bad start to an operatic career. Patricia's Debney's libretto is based on a nasty story from the Brothers Grimm. As happy couple produces a son, wife suddenly dies, hubby remarries, in the process gaining a step-daughter. Step-mum kills the son and serves him up for dinner while step-sister buries his bones beneath the juniper tree, where his mother is also buried. A bird rises from their remains and brings happiness back to the father, but only after a giant mill-wheel has made mincemeat of step-mum.

Another case of operatic Happy Families, then, and Watkins responds well, particularly in his 12-piece orchestra (the reliably excellent London Sinfonietta under Markus Stenz). Whether dictated by aesthetic choice or the cramped Almeida space, the decision to split the instruments either side of the stage adds piquancy, allowing unexpected couplings and triplings to emerge. It also places the voices where they belong, at the centre of attention, where they ensure that as much as possible of Debney's judiciously plain text gets across.

David McVicar's production, in Michael Vale's single set, is equally if less successfully plain, leaving the singers to emote in thoroughly conventional ways. What Watkins gives the singers to work with is perhaps rather conventional too: evenly syll- abic phrases leading to emotional moments that trigger something more extreme, more ornamented. The cast handled the contrasts skilfully, particularly Penelope Walmsley-Clark as the Stepmother. "Promising debut" sounds like the faintest of damning praise, but in this case it should be taken at face value: The Juniper Tree works well in its own right, and promises much for the future.

Macbeth, meanwhile, was an unqualified success for the Royal Opera, save for one tiny detail, that for financial reasons its staging was replaced by concert performances. Or perhaps that was no bad thing. It played in tandem with the 1857 version of Simon Boccanegra, revised nearly a quarter of a century later to become Verdi's most sheerly beautiful opera. Presumably because Placido Domingo was in the cast, the Royal Opera kept to its planned staging of Boccanegra, but what director Ian Judge offers is too often an obstruction of the work's raw energy. John Gunter's set includes a giant pillar that, to no good effect, moves a few metres, in the process wobbling like jelly on a plate, and at last Wednesday's performance, a huge banner got caught in the wings and had to be dispensed with. Meanwhile, the chorus chases its tail hither and yon as the principals indulge in join-the-dots acting. It's all thoroughly depressing, and even Mark Elder in the pit seemed short of his usual conviction, which might have saved performances of what is much more than a mere rough draft. It's inevitably discombobulating to hear familiar phrases sung to completely different tunes, yet once the ear has adjusted, this is a stirring piece.

As Gabriele Adorno, Domingo is in fine voice, controlling the line idiomatically and hitting the high spots with apparent ease. Adorno, however, is not one of Verdi's most substantial roles, and Boccanegra needs more, even than Domingo. The other singers had their moments, but there were signs of distress, most noticeably from Kallen Esperian as Amelia, too often finding the notes like Devon Malcolm searching for a good length; and Jaakko Rybanen, a cavernous bass and an imposing presence, but apt to bottom out. In the title role, Sergei Leiferkus hardly has an Italianate sound, but his plummy baritone is touchingly dignified, particularly as he succumbs to poison in one of Verdi's more protracted death-rattles.

The early version of Macbeth also includes a lengthy death for baritone. Although it may not be as faithful to Shakespeare as the revision, it's more moving, particularly with a Macbeth as intensely sung as Anthony Michael-Moore's. At first Michael-Moore looked uncomfortable without the support of a full production, but slowly he began to fill the stage. His voice is cleanly produced, his line is smooth and precise, and his timbre is thrilling: a world-beater in our midst. Thrill for thrill, he was all but matched by Georgina Lukacs as Lady Macbeth, wild and sometimes inaccurate, but then this is Lady Macbeth, hardly the last word in balanced refinement. There was good support from Roberto Scandiuzzi's Banquo and Dennis O'Neill's Macduff, and the chorus was outstanding, repeatedly raising the hairs on the back of the neck. With Edward Downes pushing the orchestra to the brink of vulgarity (where it belongs in this music), this was an exciting evening. Concert performances are usually second best, but this one was infinitely more dramatic than the allegedly staged Boccanegra.

On Thursday in St Paul's Cathedral, Paul McCreesh conducted Biber's huge Missa Salisburgensis, baroque music on a Mahlerian scale. To cope, McCreesh's own Gabrieli Consort and Players joined forces with Reinhard Goebel's Musica Antiqua Koln, and the feeling of a special event was emphasised by the fanfares ricocheting around us as we took our seats. McCreesh had brass players scattered through the building. It was thrilling, not least because in St Paul's a note takes a full seven seconds to die away, seven seconds in which time stops. But with all that reverb washing around, voices and instruments were swallowed whole, and only the brass had real presence. This afternoon's broadcast of the performance on Radio 3 will probably give a clearer picture of the music itself, which is beautiful and original. A great occasion, but not quite a great musical occasion.

'Simon Boccanegra': Royal Opera House (0171 304 4000), 8 & 10 Jul.

Michael White returns next week.

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