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Post-War British Opera, Part Two

By Joel Kasow in Paris

arrison Birtwistle is perhaps the best-known composer of his generation, but he has never been noted for his crowd-pleasing music, to which Gawain is no exception. David Harsent's libretto is - for today - a relatively straightforward retelling of the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. The composer has provided a relentlessly aggressive sound world with an interesting cast of singers forced to sing ungratefully written music loudly in their upper registers to make any sort of impression. The aspersions cast by G. B. Shaw at Verdi are more apposite in this instance. A previous exposure to Punch and Judy left an overwhelmingly negative impression now confirmed - unshared by the British press I might add - that Birtwistle might be better off avoiding vocal music. An important criterion is: would I want to hear this music again? In this case, a resounding NO.

ince an encounter several years ago with the work of Judith Weir, an intriguing disc of three operas lasting less than an hour, particularly King Harald's Saga in which Jane Manning interprets 8 roles as well as the Norwegian army, in less than 13 minutes. In the intervening years the composer has written A Night at the Chinese Opera and The Vanishing Bridegroom, culminating in the ENO production of Blond Eckbert in 1994 and a subsequent filming for television. Weir's music is nowhere near as complex as that of Birtwistle, sometimes using minimalist techniques, but not afraid to let the singers sing, particularly Anne-Marie Owens in a lengthy solo. Voices are respected. Narrative is again comparatively linear by today's standards, but sufficiently complicated to satisfy contemporary theatrical demands. Profuse staging instructions in all three operas were presumabably written to be ignored by any self-respecting stage director but are fascinating as indications of what motivated the composers. Three acts for 65 minutes is also more effective than Birtwistle's two acts of 61 and 75 minutes. Therefore: YES.

ichael Berkeley easily satisfies contemporary dramatic criteria by juxtaposing an autobiographical short story by Kipling and episodes from The Jungle Book; he has also composed an effective score, not afraid of lyric expansion but also respectful of vocal limitations which is important when one of the principal roles is sung by a boy soprano. We are here confronted with the theme of lost innocence, already treated by Britten in Turn of the Screw. Berkeley uses far simpler dramatic and musical means, the singers all playing at least two roles, a character from each of the sources that formed the libretto. The musical idiom, as with Weir, remains accessible and the fusion of intent and result is admirable. Therefore: YES.

Harrison Birtwistle : Gawain

Morgan Le Fay, Marie Angel; Lady de Hautdesert, Anne Howells; Arthur, Richard Greager; Guinevere, Penelope Walmsley-Clark; The Fool, Omar Ebrahim; Agravain, Alan Ewing; Ywain, John Marsden; Gawain, François Le Roux; Bishop Baldwin, Kevin Smith; The Green Knight, John Tominson
The Royal Opera Chorus and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Elgar Howarth, conductor
Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 20 April 1994
Collins Classics 70412 (2 cds)

Judith Weir : Blond Eckbert

Bird Nerys Jones; Berthe, Anne-Marie Owens; Walther/Hugh/Old Woman, Christopher Ventris; Nicholas Folwell, Blond Eckbert
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Sian Edwards, conductor
Recorded in 1994
Collins Classics 14612 (1 cd)

Michael Berkeley : Baa Baa Black Sheep

Punch/Mowgli as a child, Malcolm Lorimer; Mowgli as a young man, William Dazeley; Judy/Grey Wolf, Ann Taylor-Morley; Father/Father Wolf/Messua's Husband, George Mosley; Mother/Mother Wolf/Messua, Eileen Hulse; The Captain/Akela, Henry Newman; Auntirosa/Baldeo, Fiona Kimm: Harry/Sheer Khan, Philip Sheffield; Bhini-in-the-garden/Baloo, Mark Holland; Meeta/Bagheera, Clive Bayley; Captain Sahib snake-man/Ka, Paul McCann; Priest, Brian Cookson
Chorus of Opera North and English Northern Philharmonia
Paul Daniel, conductor
Recorded live at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, on 13, 16, 17, 19 November 1993
Collins Classics 70362 (2 cds)

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