Kronos Quartet, Hackney Empire, London The Enchanted Island, Metropolitan Opera, New York / UK Cinemas/ Radio 3

Recital room revolutionaries rekindle their old fire, and a cut-and-shunt opera makes a movie

Anna Picard
Sunday 29 January 2012 01:00

Formed in 1973, the Kronos Quartet has become a brand. Dressed down, heavily amplified, and lit in a purple haze, they symbolise a certain kind of cool. This is contemporary music packaged for the New Yorker reader who shops at Whole Foods, whose iPod shuffles twixt Hendrix and Webern, and whose favourite films range from Keaton to Kiarostami. When the lights go down, we could all be characters in a Jonathan Franzen novel: a little bruised around the edges but definitively urbane and smart.

In the Hackney Empire, one of three venues in the quartet's Barbican residency last week, the first half of their Made in America programme was too urbane for its own good. Once revolutionary, minimalism has become the art form of the establishment. Bryce Dessner's Aheym and Tyondai Braxton's Uffe's Workshop clung nervously to the Philip Glass model, while Missy Mazzoli's Harp and Altar was most interesting when it briefly shook off the bop-bop patterns and bloomed into a shivery rhapsody.

George Crumb's Black Angels inspired the quartet's formation. Written in 1971, in response to the Vietnam war, its angry beauty still burns brightly. Here the crude dig of the bow, the Hendrixian cadenzas, the mournful dances and the viol-like austerity of tone that were merely decorative in the first half of the concert had cogency and authority. The complex choreography of different soundworlds – solo cello with a ghostly trio of bowed musical glasses, dancing pizzicato duos, the whisper or tsunami of bowed gongs – was seamless, the interweaving of sarabande, lachrymae and lied intoxicating.

Like the Kronos Quartet, Jeremy Sams's Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island could only have been made in America. Premiered by New York's Metropolitan Opera on New Year's Eve, broadcast on Radio 3 and relayed live to 70 UK cinemas last weekend, this fantastical confection wears its big budget on its frilly sleeve. Julian Crouch's Audubon and Inigo Jones-inspired designs mix painted flats with video projections. There are floating mermaids, magic spells, and a deus ex machina called Placido Domingo.

Handel, and his Venetian contemporary, Vivaldi, provide the bulk of the music for The Enchanted Island, with further material drawn from Rameau, Rebel, Leclair, Ferrandini and John Weldon. Sams's recitatives are long and angular, but the blending of French, Italian and English Restoration styles is admirably smooth. By melding the plots of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream and shipwrecking the latter's young lovers on Prospero's island, Sams has four more characters to shepherd than the average Baroque opera – a problem he resolves by losing one in a cave. His focus is the relationship between Prospero (David Daniels) and Sycorax (Joyce Di Donato), who scheme like parents in a messy divorce.

Phelim McDermott's light directorial touch results in a lack of cohesion. Almost every style of acting is here, from Baroque gesture to pantomime. Musically, there is greater unanimity, the Met's orchestra playing with short bows and long trills under William Christie. Whatever one's reservations about the Met's cinema style – mid-match interviews that treat artists as athletes, sponsors' name checks – most remarkable is how the hearts of an audience several thousand miles away can stop for Di Donato's "Hearts that love can all be broken" (from Ferrandini's Il pianto de Maria) and Daniels's "Forgive me" (from Handel's Partenope).

With Handelian pragmatism, Neptune's forgetfulness is flagged up in his first recitative, while his closing aria is set to Tamerlano's "Figlia mia" (Domingo). Danielle De Niese's Ariel gets the last showstopper, "Can you feel the heavens are reeling" (from Vivaldi's Griselda). By then, I didn't give a jot about honeymooners or mermaids. The tragedy beneath this supernatural romcom is one of good intentions and bad parenting, of love warped by disappointment. Miranda (Lisette Oropesa) gets her Ferdinand (Anthony Roth Costanzo). Caliban (Luca Pisaroni), with a face that only a mother could love, gets nothing.

Next Week:

Anna Picard hears Jonathan Harvey's Buddhist fantasy, Wagner Dream

Classical Choice

Andreas Scholl and Kammerorchester Basel perform Bach's cantatas Ich habe genug (BWV 82) and Gott soll allein mein Herze haben BWV 169) at London's Barbican Hall (Fri). Bill Bankes-Jones translates and directs Scottish Opera's new production of Hansel and Gretel at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow (from Sat).

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