Martynov Vita Nuova, Royal Festival Hall, London

Edward Seckerson
Thursday 19 February 2009 11:45

How seriously can we take Vladimir Martynov's "anti-opera" Vita Nuova? Should we be laughing or crying at its conceit?

It's been a long road to completion for this meditation on Dante's famous novel of his love divine for eternal feminine Beatrice and just when this plainly divided first audience thought it might all be over there followed an episode of such banality that one seriously began to doubt the integrity of the previous two-and-a-half hours.

The perpetually mobile chorus - Europachorakademie - had filed from the hall, their repeated plainchant receding into blissful silence. More than enough said, one might have thought. But Martynov now set about violating that silence with a sub-Straussian postlude of almost laughable cheesiness during which the entire London Philharmonic - barring the celeste and vibraphone players and, of course, the conductor Vladimir Jurowski - left the stage in the manner of Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony. Who exactly was enjoying the last laugh now?

Martynov's musical philosophy is based, we are told, on the belief that everything in Western music has been written and that all we can now do is re-invoke the past. This he does with such alacrity as to make one wonder if he actually has anything of his own to say. It's almost as if he is seeking to make an art of unoriginality. Centuries of musics are regurgitated in bizarre juxtapositions from the sparest and simplest (yes, even Carl Orff is in there) to the headiest (Messiaen and Debussy). Minimalist or maximalist, really the check-list is exhaustive. It's hard to think of another work so unashamedly second-hand. But it's not so much the stylistic allusions I object to but rather the embarrassing thinness of their realisation. Those moments that did resonate - like the prelude to act three - only did so courtesy of their distinguished models. And there were phrases from Wagner here so close to plagiarism that the homage (if that's what it was) was not flattering but insulting.

So what to make of this protracted ritual? I have no idea. Suffice it to say that the single star rating is no reflection on the effort and skill that went into the preparation of this world premiere performance - a one-off, I fancy. Seasoned evangelist Mark Padmore was the spirit of Dante shepherding us through the poetry of his desire in melisma upon elaborate melisma. But words and music were never on equal terms: the pull of the inferno seemed irresistible.

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