Describing the end of the world in music is no small deal. Wagner took 16 hours spread over four nights when he tried in the Ring Cycle. Jonathan Dove does it more economically in his 75-minute eschatological opera The Day After, but still delivers a sweeping sonic spectacle through music that depicts the cataclysm of a sun-scorched earth in epic terms. And the only disappointment in last week’s staging of the piece by ENO was that the budget didn’t stretch to something equally spectacular to look at.
It played not at the Coliseum but at ENO’s rehearsal studios in West Hampstead, as part of a new venture to fill the gaps in the cash-strapped company’s reduced season with low-cost shows in smaller venues, giving chorus members a chance to step forward as soloists, and younger production or music staff a similar chance to show their worth.
Launching the venture with this piece by Dove was generally a good idea. The way it joins together a contemporary disaster narrative of global warming with the ancient myth of Phaeton driving the chariot of the sun too close to the earth is awkward; but the score is thrilling, with a fabulous orchestral sequence for the fatal chariot ride through the sky that seems to last for ever – presumably because the opera’s original production, in Holland, happened out of doors with pyrotechnic effects that called for extended musical accompaniment.
At ENO’s rehearsal studios – opened for the first time as a public auditorium – there were, alas, no pyrotechnics and, for all the efforts of the young director Jamie Manton, not enough happening on stage for this extended music to accompany. You had to exercise imagination, the great free resource of budget theatre. But Dove’s music vividly propelled the audience through the journey. Where its vocal writing owes too much to the composer’s heroes (principally John Adams), in orchestral terms it’s an assured and idiomatic tour de force – commandingly conducted here by ENO’s chorusmaster James Henshaw who, on the strength of it, will doubtless be promoted to the Coliseum pit before too long.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra and its conductor Ivan Fischer have a maverick magnetism on the concert platform. They’re among the world’s greatest ensembles, but they also do things differently. And an example was their concert at the Festival Hall last week, which began with Fischer giving a lecture-recital on Bartok’s indebtedness to folk music – illustrated by live performance – and continued with a powerful account of the composer’s folk-related masterpiece Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Sixty minutes of relentless tension, it was the epitome of dark, disturbing beauty. Not a comfortable experience, but cathartic. And instructive.
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