With a few deep sighs and a rattle of stick on wood, Thomas Larcher’s The Hunting Gun sidles into life like a beast waking from slumber. It’s a bold start to a breathtaking piece – unquestionably one of the outstanding events in a crowded summer season – which, nearly two hours later, in similar vein, sinks back into oblivion. First seen at the Bregenz festival last year, its UK premiere was the opening highlight of the 2019 Aldeburgh festival, where the Austrian composer is one of this year’s resident artists.
Everything about this dense, sinewy opera, the composer’s first, is in the detail. Based on the 1949 novel of solitude by Yasushi Inoue, the libretto by Friederike Gösweiner retains the Japanese writer’s understated aesthetic. We could dwell on the human dilemma: a gnarl of deceits born out of a love triangle, a betrayed teenager and the poet who enables this tale to be told. Emotions are raw and filleted as meat on a block. As Larcher (b1963) has said, the story can be understood by anyone involved in human relationships, “whether to stay or leave, speak out or stay silent, hold on or let go”.
The enigma lies, instead, in the music, and in how he creates such aural variety and wholeness, without it all becoming an eclectic mess. Those opening sighs are made by wind and brass players blowing into their instruments without making notes. The in-out squeeze of an accordion adds melancholy resonance. A wordless chorus – the vocal ensemble Exaudi – adds atmosphere. A spectral rat-a-tat was achieved (I later discovered) by a drum roll played on a piece of A3 paper suspended from the back of a music stand. Then the work springs to life with a whispering, then a roaring, rush of ascent and passion. The newly formed Knussen Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, played every note and noise with buoyancy and grace.
Larcher should be better known to a wider public. His music has the quirky richness of a coat made not only of rainbow colours, but of every conceivable fabric: a sonic equivalent of feathers, velvet, net, silk, brushed steel, burlap, lace. Out of a jangle of steel pans, tubular bells and thunder sheets, a fragment of radiant chorale or counterpoint might emerge. Much of the solo vocal writing has the power of song while some, as in the high coloratura writing for Shoko – superbly sung by the French soprano Sarah Aristidou – becomes part of the orchestral texture. Samuel Boden (Poet), Giulia Peri (Midori), Iris van Wijnen (Saiko) and Peter Schöne (Josuke Misugi) were in all respects first class in Karl Markovics’s clean, cool production: a play of sun, clouds, snow, moving as a video backdrop to the simple white frame and narrow gully – “narrow path” or “white riverbed” – of Katharina Wöppermann’s designs.
Natural phenomena played an equal part, perfectly timed and without mechanical assistance, at Blythburgh church, the “cathedral of the marshes”, for a vocal concert by Tenebrae and its director, Nigel Short. Unaccompanied choral singing comes no better than this: in blend, accuracy, precision, commitment. Marking the 60th birthday of James MacMillan, the ensemble interspersed his Tenebrae Responsories and Miserere with music by Byrd and Tallis, tacitly exploring the Roman Catholic origins of these composers from both Elizabethan eras. As this brilliant small choir sang MacMillan’s Tenebrae factae sunt (Darkness fell), in which chromatic scales and ornament are overlaid in luminous clusters, their music almost seemed to challenge the setting sun itself. The last, low rays momentarily flooded the church with light and shadow, before 16 altar candles (and a couple of essential spotlights) took over the job and saved us all from universal darkness.
That kind of magic didn’t entirely ignite Glyndebourne’s staging of Massenet’s Cendrillon, in Fiona Shaw’s 2018 production first seen on tour and, new to the main festival, revived by Fiona Dunn. There’s no shortage of charm. If anything, excess is the weakness. Dreams and Freudian adventures, revolving mirrors, suit bags zipped up and down suggestive of chrysalis and butterfly, a suicidal overdose, a trouser role prince (Kate Lindsey) who ends up wearing a maid’s dress, all clutter the simple tale of Cinderella. In the title role, Danielle de Niese is sympathetic and appealing. She can move, she can dance, and act, but on first night her voice sounded not quite focused. The sisters, extravagantly played by Julie Pasturaud and Eduarda Melo, took pleasure in their vulgar celebrity shopping trips, with Agnes Zwierko game as their mutton-as-lamb mother. Top singing came from one performer: Nina Minasyan as the silver-toned Fairy Godmother. John Wilson, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, pointed up the sensuous enchantment of Massenet’s score. I’m not sure I’d be seduced by this ponderous opera however it’s done. The audience was more cheerfully disposed.
No jokes or magic, but religion and politics: Grange Park Opera chose Verdi’s Don Carlo, in the four-act Italian version, for its season opener. Jo Davies’s imposing staging was first seen in the company’s previous, Hampshire base in 2016. This was its first outing to its new West Horsley home, now in its third year. The theatre’s excellent acoustics enhanced the work’s power and immediacy. Gianluca Marciano conducted with pace and insight, persuading the orchestra of English National Opera to show their best Italianate fervour. Crowd scenes and auto-da-fé proved overwhelming, while the private episodes were intense and communicative. Clive Bayley’s pensive, angry Philip II and Leonardo Capalbo’s impetuous Carlo headed a strong cast, with Marina Costa-Jackson as Elisabetta, Ruxandra Donose as Eboli and Brett Polegato as Posa. This penumbrous staging, elegantly designed by Gabrielle Dalton, has enough flames, flickers and flares to heat a reasonably large house. Given current temperatures, it may prove the canniest of all country-house opera options.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Hunting Gun/Tenebrae ★★★★★
Don Carlo ★★★★
The Aldeburgh festival continues until 29 June
Cendrillon is in rep at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, until 2 Aug
Don Carlo is in rep at Grange Park Opera, West Horsley, Surrey, until 9 July