Streetwise Opera, New College Chapel, Oxford

By Roderic Dunnett
Monday 22 December 2003 01:00

Streetwise Opera dazzled last autumn with their first ever staging of Britten's five Canticles in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps inevitable, then, that their latest staging, in the chapel of New College, Oxford, should seem a dramatic fizzle by comparison.

Britten again supplied the vehicle for this capable ensemble, part professional musicians, part gifted amateurs drawn from various community outreach venues and day centres. Two very different works, the expressively varied A Ceremony of Carols and his mesmerising dark ballad cycle Winter Words, drawing its title, if only one of its texts, from Hardy's posthumous last poetry volume of 1928.

Immediately problems arise: is it viable to enjamb two such disparate works, using chance verbal coincidence to point up some kind of "relation"? The proclaimed idea of "linking them together into a meaningful whole" seems fanciful, though the chilly anguish of these eight poignant songs gains some relief and underscoring from the warm glow and nervy archaism of the interleave carols. There is a fair bit of the wintry in both.

There were three effective visual coups in this predominantly lightweight staging: the third came as the audience filed out through vast oak doors into the chilly, low-lit College cloister: a redemptive experience in itself. A few weeks earlier this space might have been usefully spliced into the staging; as it was, the ante-chapel was adequately, if not over-imaginatively, used.

Latterly the single aisle provided none of the variety of last year's Westminster Abbey masterpiece: the best moment came with a spectacular shifting-light final tableau, where choirboys in civvies melded among the others like destitute waifs in some Dickensian or Hardy-esque crowd scene.

New College Choir has few peers, and currently excels, the alto tone so sumptuously rich it slightly overweights the superbly tuned treble line. Their "continental" tone was cutting and invigorating in magical settings like "There is no Rose"; several solos were magical. What was missing was more varied dynamic; yet few choirs could match the perfect unison entry or the assurance in carols like "This little babe". So professional, indeed, that they rather stuck out like a sore thumb: once they donned surplices, we were at a choral concert. The staging got eclipsed.

The true drama lay between Britten's Tom Raskin's live, chromatic balladeer and accompanist Dominic Harlan. In last year's Canticles the surrounding stage quilt proved integral, but here three months of day workshops generated little to enhance or underscore meaning. The "Wagtail" was witty, but much else was silly, even patronising. A pity - outreach groups' tangible talents deserve testing and stretching.

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