Almeida Festival – Three Japanese Operas

Alexander Goehr
Three Japanese Operas (1997-8) –
(Un)Fair Exchange
Damask Drum

– texts by the composer, after Zeami

Rosei – Eugene Ginty
Woman – Emma Selway
Envoy – Richard Burkhard
Courtier – Nicholas Garrett
Two Tenors – Darren Abrahams & Nigel Robson

(Un)Fair Exchange
Blind Old Husband – Nicholas Garrett
Young Wife – Emma Selway
Monkey Man – Eugene Ginty
Monkey – Darren Abrahams

Damask Drum
Old Gardener – Nigel Robson
Mischievous Boys – Darren Abrahams & Richard Burkhard
Beautiful Lady – Emma Selway
Tenor – Eugene Ginty
Baritone – Nicholas Garrett

Almeida Aldeburgh Opera production in association with Sinfonia 21

Director/Designer – Tim Hopkins
Costume Designer – Tania Spooner
Choreography – Kate Brown
Lighting Designer – Rodney Grant

Sinfonia 21 conducted by David Parry

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 June, 2001
Venue: Almeida at King’s Cross, London

The all-round success of Arianna, Alexander Goehr’s opera after Monteverdi, when staged at Covent Garden in 1995 seemed in one sense to be making up for an operatic career which had been far from trouble-free – notably the disastrously bowdlerised premiere of Behold the Sun back in the mid-1980s. So things looked ominous when it became known that Goehr would not be attending this performance of his latest theatre piece – though what transpired was, musically at least, a considerable success.

With its stylised expressive gestures and stark narrative function, Noh Theatre has long fascinated Western artists; indeed, Britten’s Curlew River could be said to have initiated a whole new theatrical tradition back in 1964. The present evening was essentially music-theatre rather than chamber-opera, and so looked back to the Biblical triptych that Goehr devised over 30 years ago. Musically the impression is of restraint rather than austerity, with wide-ranging tonal processes, typical of the composer’s music over more than a decade, employed to searching effect in the opening drama, Kantan.

Here, the existential ’awakening’ of the protagonist, through a dream in which his life is viewed in toto, is reflected in flexible vocal writing and great harmonic richness; its plangency brought about through the scoring for nine violins with only single viola and cello, subtly enriched by discreet percussion and keyboard sampler. The staging, with its appearance akin to a ’crazy golf’ course, did not so much undermine the presentation as limit its potential for depth and immediacy of impact. The crass, and crassly-realised, visual imagery suggest a misunderstanding of what Noh Theatre is about and how its qualities can be utilised today.

The remaining dramas took place in what amounted to parallel ’play-pens’ which, in the case of (Un)Fair Exchange, worked agreeably enough. This brief comedy of a blind man unwittingly left with a monkey in place of his wife provoked a spare and quizzical, rather than humorous response from Goehr; intended as a postlude to the evening, it instead functioned as an interlude between the two more serious dramas.

Damask Drum deals with weighty emotions – an old gardener who, believing himself spurned by the beautiful lady oblivious to his beating of a drum, drowns himself; he returns to haunt her with the sound of the drum that, for the audience at least, takes on an overwhelming force. Goehr matches this with a suitably evocative score, alto flute adding its bittersweet strain to the wistful earlier stages and alto trombone cutting implacably through the closing confrontation. Again, the functional staging merely situated rather than enhanced the drama, and the generalised ’punk’ outfits of the mischievous boys jarred with the scenic abstraction, though their joining with a tenor and baritone in a four-part chorus to the side of the ensemble, articulating the tragedy in its latter stages, was an undeniably effective touch.

Vocally, the evening was a success, with Eugene Ginty readily identifiable-with in Kantan, Nicholas Garrett humorously unappealing in (Un)Fair Exchange, and Nigel Robson sympathetic and powerful as the gardener-cum-demon in Damask Drum. Emma Selway was vocally impressive in her very different roles in each piece, while finding the balance between abstract image and tangible presence that her contribution necessitated. David Parry directed Sinfonia 21 with a real feeling for the soundworld of Goehr’s music, making light of the apparent imbalance of registration. Staging these dramas ’in the round’ meant that certain vocal contributions were obscured, depending on seating position. Like the stagings themselves, its worth overlooking such shortcomings to experience an evening rich in musical imagery, and absorbing in its remodelling of ancient theatrical procedure thoughtfully and intelligibly for the present.

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