Saturday, 20 August 2011

Birtwistle, Angel Fighter, BBC Proms

Another day, another new opera in London town. Today I saw the UK premiere of Angel Fighter, a new work which is essentially a short opera (people will probably want to call it a cantata). It was commissioned by the Leipzig Bach Festival and, in situ, sounds something like this:



The performance I heard was at London's Cadogan Hall, a much dryer acoustic than the Thomaskirche Leipzig, with a strange vertical nature - the sounds rolls up, not out. This is important as I found myself struggling to get to grips with the text. This is a characteristic of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's music. For all its surprisingly meticulous orchestration it really comes at you with minimum violence, making almost insuperable demands on the soloists.

Quite apart from their gifts as singers I wouldn't have minded seeing Andrew Watts and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts go head to head in a real fight. These two mean are well-built and immediately put me in mind of Jacob Epstein's sculpture of the same title (right; although the homoeroticism of the sculpture isn't something at all apparent in Birtwistle's piece, the composer himself referring to a painting instead). Watts' initial entry was from the back of the hall where one was able to hear his forward, clarion, well-modulated tone. But on stage both were assaulted with the timbre-saturation and volume coming from behind them and it was difficult to really make them out. The BBC Singers, who warmed up into some quality ensemble singing in the first piece of the programme (Peter Maxwell-Davies' Il rozzo martello) were better defined but only as they had a more nebulous character, as is defined in Stephen Plaice's lyric appropriation of the tale.

Indeed this turned out to be yet another typical Birtwistle experience after Royal Opera's The Minotaur and the Mask of Orpheus Prom from a couple of years back. You fight to hear the buried orchestration and the metaphor of struggle is directly resosnant with the conflict going on right at the surface of the music. When a certain dramatic irony is involved to colour this experience - as in the ENO's recent Punch & Judy at the Young Vic - this can become quite an invigorating experience. However, with a really wonderfully balanced performance of Georges Aperghis's 'piano concerto' Champ-Contrechamp prior to it (the London Sinfonietta with Nicolas Hodges) as well as the tonally contra-distinct colours conjured by the BBC Singers in the Peter Maxwell-Davies, I found myself combing through the bluster of the Birtwsitle for comparatively little return.

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