The Opera in England: Vigorous But Spiky
by Alex Ross
New York Times, June 24, 1995
"It looks as if the old spell on English opera may be broken at last," Benjamin Britten wrote in the summer of 1945, savoring the triumph of his "Peter Grimes." Purcell, the last English composer to gain anything more than fleeting operatic success, had died 250 years before. Britten's swift tale of crime and vengeance prompted a burst of operatic activity in England that has hardly let up for five decades.
Although Covent Garden's Verdi Festival occupies center stage here this month, operas by Britten and various successors have stolen a share of the limelight. New productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Billy Budd" have arrived at the English National Opera and Covent Garden, and "Grimes" was given a concert performance on Tuesday at the City of London Festival. Britten's own Aldeburgh Festival honored "Grimes" with an orchestral concert and also presented a new opera by Nicola LeFanu. The Glyndebourne Festival, meanwhile, mounted the latest Harrison Birtwistle opus, "The Second Mrs. Kong."
So is English opera alive and well? There is room for doubt, particularly concerning the repertory's international appeal. A recent Metropolitan Opera production of "Death in Venice" drew thin crowds; Michael Tippett's operas remain an acquired taste, and Mr. Birtwistle's thorny creations have yet to prove exportable. At the same time, opera seems in better shape here than elsewhere. All the younger composers are trying their hand at it, and audiences at least give them a hearing before moving on to the next phenomenon.
Mr. Birtwistle has held his ground against younger trends and become the unlikely doyen of English opera. His grim, raw, amorphous soundscapes make few concessions to narrow ears; he seems almost deliberately at odds with Britten's lucid play of styles. Yet he got his operatic start under Aldeburgh's auspices in 1968, with his knife-edged "Punch and Judy." Britten disliked the piece to the point of walking out, but the composer drew an avid following, particularly in European avant-garde circles.
While previous Birtwistle operas have adapted ancient or medieval myth, "The Second Mrs. Kong" looks obliquely on modern life. Russell Hoban's libretto is a hallucinatory colloquy of underworld voices, mythic apparitions, the ghost of Vermeer and a man who fancies himself King Kong. The murky scenario miraculously came to life in a dazzling multimedia staging by Tom Cairns, neatly tailored to Glyndebourne's new hall.
Amid pseudo-Joycean obscurities and cyberspace fireworks, the composer makes his formidable presence felt. He is a master of grinding, groaning sonorities, submerged pulses, spasms of frenzied gesturing, extra dimensions of electronic tone. "So the world turns" goes a line in his previous opera, "Gawain"; he likes a deep, axial rumble. But he is not a man of quick dramatic instincts. He seems strangely uninvolved in his librettist's breathless satire, borrowing outdated parodistic devices from Berg. Ancient subjects suit him better.
Ms. LeFanu's "Wildman" positions itself very differently in the Britten line. Like "Grimes," it is set on the somber coast of East Anglia, loosely adapting the local legend of a Wildman or merman who was caught at sea and held in the dungeon of Orford Castle. Kevin Crossley-Holland's poetic libretto plays again on Britten's favorite theme of the outcast, although the title character here is a perfect innocent. Mastering human speech, the Wildman upsets human convention and liberates a hidebound family.
What "The Wildman" lacked, to say the least, was the galloping force of "Grimes." Ms. LeFanu's score was seductively beautiful, an elegant flow of impressionistic chamber textures, tautly lyrical woodwind lines and microtonal shadings. But its mystery did not blossom into drama. Despite a sensational lead performance by Gwiom Thomas, this opera seemed more a conversation piece than living theater. It was drenched in caution.
Britten's operas are notable above all for their fearless, single-minded concentration on closely matched physical settings and pyschological states. Directors wishing to update them tread on risky terrain. Covent Garden's "Billy Budd," directed by Francesca Zambello, abandoned Britten's fanatical realism. Maritime atmosphere gave way to modern, monochrome surfaces; the Indomitable's mast and rigging became something like a telephone pole, and the captain's cabin resembled a concrete bunker.
Without its detailed period context, Britten's surging score seemed lost. Ms. Zambello's abstract play of colors and forms, while often arresting to the eye, hemmed in both the characters and the music. The casting caused further confusion: John Tomlinson's imposing, stentorian Claggart curiously upstaged Peter Coleman-Wright's bland Billy and Graham Clark's reedy Vere.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the English National Opera initially threatened to go in the same over-conceptual direction. Robert Carsen's production made much of the color green and filled the stage with beds of various sizes. But as the faeries unfurled giant bedsheets in Act I, the production evinced a bright, prankish spirit, wedding Surrealism to low comedy. While missing deeper subtexts, it moved with assurance toward the unashamedly slapstick finale.
The ever-regal Lillian Watson excepted, the cast on Friday night lacked first-class voices, but it overflowed with deft comedians. Britten might have frowned on the outright vulgarity, but he could hardly have scorned a production that drew steadily increasing laughter and enthusiasm from a capacity audience. This "Dream" played to the crowd without losing its sense of self.
Both "Billy Budd" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" were expertly conducted, by Robert Spano and Steuart Bedford, respectively. Richard Hickox, leading the City of London's "Peter Grimes," seemed less sure of himself. The onstage masses and the peculiar acoustics of Barbican Hall worked against him. Britten's masterpiece made an immense impact, all the same. The excellent cast was led by Philip Langridge, who tore through the title role with a striking balance of violence and lament.
W. H. Auden once urged Britten to find a balance between bohemianism and bourgeois convention. Britten complied; he wrote for a wide audience but employed a radically individual language. For a time he was out of fashion; lately, British composers have again used him as a model. From him can be traced Oliver Knussen's sophisticated miniatures, Judith Weir's layered simplicities, the brilliant montages of the young Thomas Ades. In English opera, the night is still young.