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Have some chrysanthemum tea

Almeida at Kings Cross
06/28/2001 -  and 30 June, 2, 9 July
Alexander Goehr: Kantan/(Un)fair exchange/Damask Drum
Eugene Ginty (Rosei/Monkey man/tenor), Emma Selway (Woman/Young wife/Beautiful lady), Richard Burkhard (Envoy/Boy 2), Nicholas Garrett (Courtier/Blind old husband/baritone), Darren Abrahams (Tenor/Monkey/Boy 1), Nigel Robson (Tenor/Old gardener)

Sinfonia 21

David Parry (conductor), Tim Hopkins (director)

Alexander Goehr's previous opera, Arianna remade Monteverdi's in a modern idiom, using the original libretto and a range of associated musical material; his next premiere, at the Proms in August this year, is a celebration of Handel on similar lines. In between, he has produced a set three Noh dramas, again using and adapting the original plays and musical ideas that have become related to them. Kantan, a simple tale about a traveler looking for fulfillment who dreams he is emperor, finds it terrible, and wakes to decide that he is best off at home, has a single pace and builds up layers of music, using Japanese-sounding tonalities with just a hint of Britten. Damask Drum, a cruel ghost story, has vivid, illustrative musical drama, cumulating in the finally audible sound of the drum in the title among a storm of madness. (Un)fair exchange was (according to the libretto) originally intended as a kind of satyr play, but was performed as an intermezzo, a playful, again rather cruel joke about an old man, a young wife, a monkey-man and a monkey, with playful music.

The production, by Tim Hopkins, also aimed to filter the Noh drama conventions through a contemporary western view of Japan. The set of Kantan consisted of a miniature roadway on which the traveler, Rosei, passed icons of the modern world: a boy racer in a car, a salariman with his office block, a technician with a microscope at his bench, and a down-and-out. The woman who invites him to sleep in her cottage was in fashionable clothes but made up as a geisha, rather implausibly. The typical characters become agents in his dream, with the down-and-out offering him the cup of immortality, here a can of Asahi, as the dream lapses into a nightmare. The point that the things you aspire to in the world are liable to go wrong is not exactly earth shattering, but the music suggests a kind of depth or at least complexity that is not reflected in the production.

Damask Drum has an external narrative, which of course makes it easier to stage, but it is also about invisible, and unintended, causes and effects. An old gardener is in love with a young woman. He writes to her, but the boy to whom he entrusts the letters doesn't deliver them. The boy and his friend fake a reply, which tells the gardener to strike a cloth drum to summon the young woman. The drum makes no sound, the gardener drowns himself and his ghost curses and torments the young woman. Two people are doomed to eternal misery because of a thoughtless prank, and the torment of the young woman is particular horrific, and it is unclear whether it aims to appeal to misogyny or to serve as a diagnosis of misogyny in the conventions of desire. Goehr's music is straightforwardly concrete, evoking (as he says in a programme note) both Le marteau sans maître and Der Jasager, but also again Britten in a similar mode, somewhere between The turn of the screw and Curlew river.

There was less the production could do to this one, although the boys and the young woman again evoked modern Japanese youth style, itself a rework of western punk. The character of the old gardener was by far the most powerful one in the trilogy, and wonderfully performed by Nigel Robson, moving from klutzy optimism to despair, then inhuman vengefulness. Emma Selway was alluringly alien as the young woman (and in her other roles). The other singers, and the orchestra under David Parry, met the demands of the music skillfully and with commitment. But somehow it all seemed a bit too much like hard work for the audience.

H.E. Elsom



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