Sunday 29 July 2007

Elephant and Castle - where's Runnicles visits Aldeburgh

En route to London last month, principally to hear Sir Charles Mackerras conduct Kata Kabanova at the Royal Opera House and Mackerras and Uchida play the newly reopened Festival Hall, I stopped in Suffolk to see family and catch a little of the Aldeburgh festival. This is my second world premier here (well, almost, while I was at the first ever performance of Richard Ayres' The Cricket Recovers, tonight's was the second reading of Elephant and Calste).

So, the question on my mind prior to arriving: would this be an opera about a shopping centre in the middle of a traffic island, or was there something terribly symbolic in the title? It was the former. Clearly writer was, as a child, captivated by the name and, let's face it, who wasn't? But being captivated by a name is one thing, turning it into a working opera is quite another, and, given the subject matter, a not insignificant challenge.

The first scene unfolds on a stage projecting out from the ruined dovecote (soon to be refurbished as part of Aldeburgh's ambitious redevelopment plan) in what appears to be the interior of a council house. The two children (Hansel and Gretel - had I read the programme this might have given me a clue as to the plot) squabble while one dreams of visiting the mythic Elephant and Castle. The mother returns home, loses her temper at the mess they've made and throws them out into the street. Father returns and it is discovered that the children have gone. The music is reasonably interesting, but it's matched by horrible dialogue from Blake Morrison. The rhymes are cringingy predictable. It might be argued that this was a deliberate choice, and certainly for some characters you might want a simple style. But there is a world of difference between simple and bad, and I refuse to believe a writer deliberately writes badly.

The second scene is much better. We walk round the site to stand in front of the terrace outside the bar. There, a projection screen has been erected which gives us a tongue in cheek potted history of the eponymous structure. In a lovely touch, a split screen shows the Queen opening the Maltings and a man (indicated by an arrow to separate him from the crowd), the labour minister, whose name now escapes me, opening the Elephant and Castle. There is a wonderfully witty selection of newspaper quotes. And the score is magical, emerging as it does, electronically, from traffic noise, in a manner reminiscent of Miles Davis's autumnal album Doo-Bop. This is the work of the second of the two composers, Mira Calix, who has provided the electronic material. Interestingly, we were told afterwards, this was intended as the first scene, but the previous evening the 9pm start time had meant there was still too much light and the projections were largely invisible. This probably goes a fair way towards explaining the poor reaction on the opening night. I suppose it would have made more sense the other way round, since this does have the feel of an introduction, but it doesn't hugely hurt.

For scene three it is about face, looking out across the reed beds to where a giant backdrop has been erected and, once more, used for video projections. Now in appropriate costumes, the Hansel and Gretel link is completely obvious. The score is interesting and the quality of the script has picked up considerably. The only problem is that we're standing right in front of the speakers and it's too loud, painfully so.

Scene four contains some of the best music yet. Tansy Davies provides a haunting quartet (well, something of roughly that scale anyway) out on the lawn before the building's main entrance. True, the words on the board we're meant to be reading are not all entirely visible, but the music is such that it doesn't really matter. It was only marred right at the end when a member of the audience decided that it was a good time for a cigar. On the off chance he is reading: sir, you were mistaken! Fortunately, the rest of us had the last laugh as the action then moved inside and either he had to stub it right out or miss the next scene.

Into the main concert hall then, or rather bingo hall. Again, the music creates a nice atmosphere. But some things, for example the hordes of tiny wind-up toys scrambling across the stage, while nice enough, don't really fit. Apparently though, such fare is a hallmark of this director, Tim Hopkins. Mother and children are reunited and the distant strains of The Beatles are heard. We step outside to the terrace where scene two took place and, in the distance, before one of my favourite sculptures, inside a lorry, is a tribute band playing (rather well, it must be said) All you need is Love. And then, in a final scene reminiscent of slow-motion movie finales, the family is reunited before the backdrop on the other side of the reed bed. The fairy lights amongst the reeds are quite beautiful.

Neither the first or last scenes entirely work. Indeed, this is in part because the whole Hansel and Gretel story doesn't quite bolt on to the concept as neatly as the creative team think, or would have liked. However, it was stunning in places, made magnificent use of the site and, as should always be the test with this sort of endeavour, provided an enjoyable evening: we were not sorry to have gone. Certainly, this was a brave thing to have attempted. In the end, though, the magic evoked by the title was not quite equalled by the work itself. Perhaps they should have taken more of a cue from scene two, one or the most successful, and really made the Elephant and Castle the star, rather than trying to attach a human interest story.

The next morning, and it was off to Orford church for the Northern Sinfonietta and a concert of Britten and Respighi. While I'm a fan of the local composer, I didn't really know the sinfonietta, but I'm keen to get to know it better now. Typical Britten, both in orchestration (and texture) and tune. The forces then dramatically expanded for Respighi's Trittico Botticellanio. The piece had some nice colours but soon became rather samey (indeed, those I was with, who'd been treated to more of the composer's work earlier in the festival, found this trait even more pronounced). A much more significant problem, though, was that the church was far too small a hall for an ensemble of this size, and the sound suffered badly as a result. The forces contracted to a more sensible (though still too big for the hall) size for Britten's Simply Symphony. It was nicely played, especially the pizzicato second movement. A jolly reading of a jolly work.

It's always nice to be in Aldeburgh, or rather, the many venues used by Aldeburgh productions, and it makes me feel I really must visit for longer next year.

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