Aldeburgh festival opening weekend review – BBCSSO magnificently uncompromising

★★★★☆/ ★☆☆☆☆
Snape Maltings/Britten Studio
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, unusually opening Aldeburgh, were on splendid form, but Emily Howard’s dystopic opera was a huge letdown

The Aldeburgh festival traditionally begins with opera or music theatre, either a new staging of something from the Britten canon, or a premiere, specially commissioned. This year, though, the festival opened with a concert in Snape Maltings, given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Wilson. The new stage piece, Emily Howard’s To See the Invisible, came afterwards in a late-night presentation in the Britten Studio next door. That turned out to be a wise move, for the orchestral concert was much more rewarding than the opera.

One of this year’s themes is a celebration of the Leonard Bernstein centenary, and the BBCSSO programme was the first of two under the title of Britten, Bernstein and America. The American music came in the second half, in the shape of Aaron Copland’s gentle orchestral poem Quiet City, and Bernstein’s third symphony, The Age of Anxiety, with Cédric Tiberghien making light of the challenging but rather unrewarding solo piano part. Britten had preceded it: Wilson opened with a forthright account of the Sinfonia da Requiem, wonderfully played and sounding magnificently uncompromising in the Maltings acoustic, before tenor Robert Murray was the soloist for the first performance of Colin Matthews’ orchestration of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo.

Written in New York in 1940, the Michelangelo settings sometimes seem difficult to fit into the scheme of Britten’s songwriting – the piano accompaniments are more rhetorical, the vocal writing more florid than anything in the later cycles. Translated into orchestral terms so skilfully by Matthews, everything makes more sense. The songs with their Italian texts also reveal other, unexpected influences, including, surprisingly, that of Puccini, whose spirit seems to haunt several of these unbridled love songs; Murray caught that Italianate quality superbly.

John Wilson conducts the BBCSSO at the Aldeburgh festival’s opening night
John Wilson conducts the BBCSSO at the Aldeburgh festival’s opening night. Photograph: Matt Jolly

After such a fine concert, almost everything about Howard’s opera came as a disappointment, save for the excellence of the performances under conductor Richard Baker and the slick efficiency of the production, directed by Dan Ayling. With a libretto by Selma Dimitrijevic developed from a short story by Robert Silverberg, To See the Invisible is set in a dystopian future in which an unnamed man is brought to trial and convicted for the crime of “coldness”. His sentence is to be branded as invisible for a year; no one can register his presence or interact with him. The tale of increasing isolation and mental disintegration may have the seed of a convincing theatre piece within it, but Howard and Dimitrijevic don’t come close to discovering it.

Their opera lasts about 80 minutes, but seems much longer. That’s partly because the dramaturgy is so uneven and plodding, but mostly because of the absence of any meaningful music in the score. Which parts of the text are spoken, which are delivered parlando and which sung seems almost arbitrary, while the nine-player ensemble, members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group no less, are mostly confined to generating dissonant sound effects and the occasional minimalist riff. One felt for them, just as one felt for the fine cast, led by Nicholas Morris and Anna Dennis.

In fact, other composers’ music makes more impact in Howard’s score than her own: an Elizabethan lute song is quoted extensively at one point, and Mozart’s Soave Sia il Vento from Cosí Fan Tutte dominates the final scenes. Their significance here escaped me, but then the whole thing really does make you wonder about the quality control on a project such as this, particularly at such a well-resourced establishment as Aldeburgh.

  • The Aldeburgh festival continues until 24 June. Box office: 01728 687110. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert available on iPlayer.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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