What once was lost

MUSIC

WHEN the BBC commissions a new opera, Covent Garden stages it, and the result turns out to be half-decent, it should be a cause for celebration. I'd be celebrating Alexander Goehr's Arianna, which has just opened at the Garden and is considerably more than half-decent, but for two nagging questions. One is how anyone could have imagined Covent Garden to be an appropriate venue for the piece. The other is how anyone could have thought it appropriate to be commissioned (as it was) for British Music Year.

Taking the nationalistic point first, Goehr is, of course, a distinguished British composerwith at least two previous operas - depending on how you define opera - to his credit. The second of them, Behold the Sun, is still waiting for a London production; the Garden might have given that a chance before they looked at something new.

But then the newness of Arianna is itself equivocal. The title page of the score describes it as "a lost opera by Claudio Monteverdi, composed again by Alexander Goehr" - those words "composed again" carry a weight of meaning. In a sense all Monteverdi operas demand recomposition, because they survive in fragmentary terms that need some husbanding to be fit for the stage. This husbanding varies from scrupulous, scholarly realisations to free, fantasy enlargements, such as Hans Werner Henze's reworking of Il Ritorno d'Ulisse. But Arianna makes special demands in that nothing of the score survives at all - except for the heroine's famous "Lament", which serves as a precedent for all subsequent operatic abandonate through to Purcell's Dido and beyond, and is a set-piece of such striking quality that it makes the loss of everything around it peculiarly galling. Contemporary accounts suggest that Arianna may have been the most remarkable of Monteverdi's operas. And its libretto, by the father of librettists, Rinuccini, is no mean achievement either.

So ... Goehr has taken the music-less libretto (in the original Italian) and recomposed it, using a two-step process that starts with an imagined form of Monteverdi's original and then develops it into 20th-century language. But the development is curiously restrained. Knowing how Goehr has dealt with "found" objects from the past in his previous work, I was surprised by quite how Monteverdian Arianna sounds: largely a matter of early 17th-century parlar cantando gently undulating against a kind of displaced tonality that blurs but never obliterates its outlines. Imagine Francis Bacon faking a Velasquez in acrylic - here the sound equivalent of acrylic is a 16-piece pseudo-baroque band formed from modern instruments, including saxophone and sampler keyboard.

As an exercise in musical dexterity all this is fascinating: meticulously crafted and with a refined sense of the aesthetic that produces some very beautiful sounds. It isn't difficult to follow, either. But as a theatre score that runs for two hours, 10 minutes without a break I'm not so sure. The dramatic contour of the writing is fairly flat, rising to a necessary peak at the "Lament" - where Goehr pulls out the real Monteverdi with the notes encased, as it were, in quotation marks - but withering to nothing at the end. It takes a wealth of cute ingenuity from the director, Francesca Zambello, and designer, Alison Chitty, to compensate and keep things visually alive: as, in fairness, they usually are. This is a clean, spare, ruthlessly good-looking show.

It also has a good cast, led by the entrancing American mezzo Susan Graham (last seen here as Cherubin and Dorabella, and one of the Garden's most fortuitous recent discoveries) with fine support from Anna Maria Panzarella and Gidon Saks (more newcomers and hugely promising). But the fact remains that it's happening in the wrong place. Arianna needs a smaller, less con- ventional performance space than Covent Garden. Lightly scored, and with its little band half-buried in a hole on stage, it sounded distant, thin and underweight. And, frankly, the members of the ROH orchestra co- opted into the band weren't up to the exposure. Ivor Bolton, conducting, got his period-conscious best from them (and in a way that you could honestly say illuminated the tension between ancient and modern), but it was a struggle. To give the piece its due, I'd like to see it restaged with the same cast, same conductor and director, but in a black box like the Glasgow Tramway and with players from the London Sinfonietta. Then we'd know how viable it was.

On Thursday, Opera North in Leeds opened a new production of Hamlet - or, more properly, 'Amlet, since this is the French grand-operatic bowdlerisation by Ambroise Thomas, complete with 'appy ending. "Vive le roi Hamlet" rejoice the chorus as their prince, insensitive to the demands of Shakespeare, niftily avoids Laertes' sword, despatches Claudius, and lives to face a new day as the curtain falls.

It doesn't have to be like this: when Hamlet first played at Covent Garden in 1869, the true Elizabethan pile-of-corpses ending was tacked on in deference to the literary sensibilities of English audiences. But Opera North sticks to Thomas's original intentions: not that there is actually anything very original about this piece, which slavishly observes the conventions of its genre and so thinks nothing of interrupting the dramatic trajectory between the warning of the ghost and the drowning of Ophelia with a jolly little divertissement for the corps de ballet.

Given such material, the best thing a modern director can do is keep Shakespeare out of it as far as possible. That's what David McVicar does in Leeds. He exiles the action to the contrived reality of Theatre: something that looks like a BBC location-shoot, where you're never quite sure on which side of the footlights events are taking place. The court of Elsinore becomes a luvvies' chorus, putting back the ham in Hamlet; while the grave-diggers become a pair of Brechtian facilitators, shifting props and sweeping down the stage. On the whole it works extremely well, shored up by two remarkable central performances. Rebecca Caine, a young Canadian soprano with a creamily seductive coloratura, is a glorious Ophelia, filling out the sectionalised acreage of her mad scene with command- ing stature. And Anthony Michaels-Moore's Hamlet is quite simply a performance that could hold its own on any opera stage in the world. Hamlet is above all a baritone prize- piece; Michaels-Moore takes it with laurels.

Whether this now rare opera amounts to much more than a baritonal high is another matter. For all the eloquence of Oliver von Dohnanyi's conducting, I'm not convinced that Hamlet is more than exquisitely second-rate. But it is exquisite, and enjoyable, and certainly worth seeing. Once.

`Arianna': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Thurs; `Hamlet': Leeds Opera North (0113 245 9351), Mon & Wed.

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film
films

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    History Teacher

    £60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

    ** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

    £120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

    ** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

    £60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

    Java developer - (Intershop Enfinity)

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Java Developer...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album