The week in classical: Other Worlds; Cendrillon; St Matthew Passion – review

Barbican, London; Glyndebourne, Lewes; Temple church, London
John Luther Adams’s end of the world proves strangely consoling. And out on the road with Cinders and Bach

It was heartening to see a predominantly young audience pour into the Barbican last week for an evening of unashamedly complex music. Undoubtedly, imaginations had been gripped by the prospect of an epic aural and visual reflection on the most pressing issue of the age: climate change and its effect on our fragile planet.

Other Worlds promised “big music; urgent music, that asks serious questions” presented in “two massive audio-visual portrayals of a dark past and still-avoidable future”. We certainly got the big, urgent music, but the gloopy, faintly patronising visuals, projected on to a gauze-like screen at the front of the stage, fatally cut the vital connection between players, singers and audience – and diminished composer John Luther Adams’s urgent message that, as the polar icecap melts and sea levels rise, humankind, who once emerged from the sea, might again “become ocean”.

Adams takes this as his title for a monumental depiction of apocalypse, beginning with a low, menacing figure on the piano and swelling into a massive wall of sonic energy, a huge body of water moving slowly but inexorably towards us, sparkling on its surface with myriad repetitive patterns for harp, celesta, marimba and vibraphone. Rising and falling arpeggios in the strings coalesce into frightening climaxes before subsiding and going into reverse as we sink slowly towards oblivion. It’s a strangely consoling, beautiful death.

Earlier, conductor Robert Ames and the London Contemporary Orchestra and Choir performed a piece thought so fiercely difficult that it had to wait 52 years for this, its first UK performance. Giacinto Scelsi’s Uaxuctum retells the story of Maya City, destroyed by its own people in an orgy of microtonal violence and thumping, crashing percussion. Such impressively committed musicianship deserved better than lava-lamp splodges of red and orange. Next time, just let the music do the work.

Two fine opera companies are out on the road in England at the moment, bringing some classy music-making to a town near you. This month, celebrating 50 years of touring, Glyndebourne is taking Fiona Shaw’s new production of Massenet’s fairytale Cendrillon and Tom Cairns’s solidly reliable La traviata to Canterbury, Norwich, Woking and Milton Keynes.

Meanwhile, Saffron Walden, Bradford-on-Avon, Blackburn, Exeter, Sheffield, Great Malvern and Manchester can expect something a little different from English Touring Opera – an immersive performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. (Handel’s Radamisto and a triple bill including Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas also feature in Ulverston, Buxton, Bath, Durham and Exeter – now that’s a truly busy national company.)

Cendrillon gives Shaw an opportunity to take a long, hard look at the Cinderella story and offer some refreshing thoughts on love and gender. Massenet’s decision to write the part of the prince for a mezzo-soprano allows the director to explore a very different Prince Charming/Cinderella relationship. As Cinderella dreams the whole story in front of the fire, one of the household serving girls becomes her fantasy prince. As Shaw notes: “She invents something that corresponds with her notion of gentleness, rather than anything to do with masculinity… usually the prince in your life, whatever gender, is the person quite near you.”

Cendrillon – trailer

It’s a neat idea in an otherwise cluttered and uneven production, with a clunky set by Jon Bausor that hardly looks made for touring. What does impress, however, is the standard of singing. The Norwegian coloratura Caroline Wettergreen, in her Glyndebourne debut, is a stunning Fairy Godmother (catch her in the main festival season next year as the Queen of the Night), and Alix Le Saux makes a winning Cendrillon, beautifully matched by her prince, Eléonore Pancrazi – their extended love duet is a particularly precious moment. And there’s knockabout fun from Agnes Zwierko as the ghastly stepmother, Madame de la Haltière, and her hideous daughters, Noémie (Eduarda Melo) and Dorothée (Kezia Bienek).

Massenet’s subtly perfumed score is beautifully conjured by conductor Duncan Ward, with some finely judged playing from the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra.

Yet more imaginative thinking has gone into English Touring Opera’s St Matthew Passion, which strips away concert conventions and reinvigorates Bach’s urgent storytelling in several different ways, not least sharing the roles of Evangelist and Jesus between male and female singers, and having all soloists sing mostly from memory. They move among the audience, duet with orchestral players and make operatic-like entrances and exits in a site-specific staging that both dramatises the story and deepens the spiritual experience. Regional chamber and children’s choirs make up the chorus in a laudable attempt to connect with local music-makers on their own patch.

The serious, intense commitment of alto Katie Bray contrasts superbly with the special serenity of soprano Ellie Laugharne and tenor Richard Dowling, while Jonathan Peter Kenny conducts the Old Street Band with an admirably crisp sense of the drama unfolding around him.

ETO’s St Matthew Passion – trailer

Star ratings (out of five)
Other Worlds ★★★
Cendrillon ★★★★
St Matthew Passion ★★★★

  • Glyndebourne’s Cendrillon tours to Canterbury (7, 10 Nov); Norwich Theatre Royal (14, 17 Nov); Woking (23 Nov) and Milton Keynes (28 Nov, 1 Dec)

  • English Touring Opera’s St Matthew Passion tours to Saffron Walden (today, Sunday 4 Nov, 3pm); Bradford-on-Avon (11 Nov); Blackburn (17 Nov); Sheffield (18 Nov); Exeter (23 Nov); Malvern (27 Nov) and Manchester (28 Nov)


Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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