Brighton Festival, Brighton Dome, Brighton

Musical shot in the arm

Review,Roderic Dunnett
Sunday 26 January 2014 04:34
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1942 wasn't the cheeriest of years: swastikas festooned the Ukraine; El Alamein was a pipe dream; Normandy was two years off. Britain needed a musical shot in the arm.

What was called for was something galvanising and full tilt; something to butter up and buttress our American friends, some Pilgrim Fathers narrative as swashbuckling as Olivier's Henry V (which emerged a year later). So no wonder someone dreamt up Christopher Columbus, a radio play merging the talents of Walton, Laurence Olivier and the poet and BBC producer Louis MacNeice.

On Saturday, a revival of Christopher Columbus, possibly over-scissored by Patrick Garland, formed the showpiece of this year's Brighton Festival. "Henry V with a Spanish flavour," as Carl Davis, conductor of both the sizzling Walton and some exuberant first-half Copland and Bernstein, put it. Well, yes; depending on whether you think lines such as "The edge of the horizon/ is the explosive filigree of spindrift" have the authentic bardic feel. Even to inveterate fans of doggerel MacNeice, Columbus's clichés have a whiff of Round the Horne. When the three-boat explorer reports his triumph to Greta Scacchi's Dona Isabella (she endearingly prefaces Ferdinand's name with her own) it sounds ominously like Kenneth Williams or Hugh Paddick in full highfalutin flow.

Walton's score is suitably silly in places. The march to Cordoba is cheerful Pamplona nonsense, plonking minor thirds whose recurrence only underlines its vapidity. But there are also, as Christopher Palmer realised, some real gems: as when the magical Susan Bickley (replacing Sarah Connolly as Columbus's lover, Beatriz) launched into her fabulous Romanza, a Lorcan showstopper, pure, disarming, and equally beautifully accompanied on guitar by Colin Downes. Magic, too, from William Dazeley as the regal Indian chief who hailed Columbus from ashore in what sounded like a whooping Tippett spiritual, and revealed, in glorious tones, the revamped Brighton Dome's pucker new acoustic: always bright, if slightly acidic in an overloud first half, where a peacock-clad Davis allowed his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra players too much piercing headway; but what does one expect of a rodeo hoedown?

Roger Allam spoke his Hispanic grandees with a glorious, patronising gravitas; their sophistries called to mind the manoeuvring cardinals of Hindemith's Mathis or Pfitzner's Palestrina. James Lance's tenor made a penetrating herald; Evan Bowers served up a lively Hispanicised sea shanty; Isabella's commission, deliciously enunciated by Scacchi over piccolo, bass clarinet and cor anglais, elicited some classic, alluring Walton orchestration; and the Brighton Festival Chorus's big finale swept in as cataclysmically as Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony.

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