by Elena Langer
"It’s been a vintage year for new opera in Britain… not! So here, for all who have sweated, suffered and sworn through the patronising, camp, pompous and almost universally musically worthless offerings of the past months, is a trip down memory lane.
Least painful, probably, was Anna Nicole (Turnage), whose uncertainty of aim – contempt or pretend sympathy? – stymied the composer to the extent that his real voice came over only in a couple of orchestral interludes; the rest moved so slowly it did no favours to a libretto that needed to be sung double-quick to get away with jokes you could see staggering towards you over distant hills. It would have been better if scribbler Richard Thomas, jovial celebrant of the tawdry, had written the music as well. This was a vulgar spectacle, which looked as though it had been directed by Graham Norton and designed by Jeff Koons, with old auntie Covent Garden vajazzling herself to get down with the kidz.
Our next suspect is ENO’s Duchess of Malfi (Torsten Rasch), another show that at least went to the trouble of trying to cover up the threadbare with a truckload of theatrical bullshit, as a masked audience wandered through a darkened office block in east London witnessing snippets of melodrama and randomly-generated music, and being bullied by actors – and does it get worse than that? This was a vastly over-promoted Haunted House children’s party, and God only knows what kind of hole it made in ENO’s budget.
Somewhere in the same bracket comes Damon Albarn’s navel-gazing thing about his y’know, Englishness, Dr Dee. Its exceptionally vague dramaturgy was livened up by Rufus Norris’s hard-working production, full of visual trickery and even a nice raven. Some pleasant music, a bit of pastiche polyphony and minimalism, and a big drum solo; Damon sat on a shelf making vague gestures towards the action and mumbling his way through mystic songs, like Spinal Tap in Stonehenge mode. Best read up on the Doctor before you go, if you go.
Kommilitonen! blew into town on a warm fart of self-righteousness as two cosy old lefties, Peter Maxwell Davies and David Pountney, daringly invited us to hiss at Nazis and Cultural Revolutionaries and did a lot of posturing in an agit-propera with an infantile approach to moral complexity. Still, Davies is a real composer, if no longer particularly radical, and Pountney put lots of effort into making his own work look good. The final cry of “Freedom!” takes the Les Mis prize for this year’s cheesiest bathos.
Davies’s old mucker Alexander Goehr returned to opera, never his strong suit, with Promised End, boldly going where better composers had feared to tread in taking on King Lear. This was terrifically dry, dull and dated, a lesson in how to destroy promising words with terrible word-setting and alienate an audience who strive to find some emotional connexion with the characters on stage. Elsewhere, Goehr’s music was spikily lyrical, though uninterestingly scored.
That was a gloomy evening, but James Macmillan’s Clemency was worse. The ideas were promising – hospitality, terrorism, bargaining with God, a bit like a night in a British seaside hotel – but issues raised do not equal issues explored, and the soundworld of big retro unison string tunes à la Vaughan Williams and Macmillan’s urgent rhythmic drive were not enough to sustain a flagging interest, or even the will to live.
That finally seeped away during Luke Bedford’s drivelling Seven Angels, a dank evening where one felt one was slowly drowning in a musical bog while being bombarded with soggy frogs in the form of Glyn Maxwell’s empty, orotund poetastery, this time on the radical subject of how we are, like, doing really bad things to the ecology, and co-opting poor old Milton for the purpose.
At this unhappy end of the market, optimism clings to such formulae as: “Well, that was incredibly boring, but it wasn’t too irritating,” not something one could possibly say about Two Boys, composed by perky little Nico Muhly, a composer in urgent need of a slap. A discarded episode of some police procedural set to the most derivative score of second-hand Glass (or was it Adams – does anyone care?), with a gloomy, clunking staging, any marginal quality in the evening was provided by the stalwart Nicky Spence: a nice lad, but seeing him wanking in close-up was not previously on my list of must-dos – even though it neatly summed up the only thing most contemporary opera composers excel at."
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