Tom Sutcliffe reports from the Aldeburgh Festival and the production of Mirandolina at Garsington
The Aldeburgh Festival, created by Benjamin Britten to do something for the community where he had made his home, and as a shop window for music the way he wanted it to be, survived his and Peter Pears’s death by recruiting a series of composers to fill the role of artistic director. Pierre-Laurent Aimard now in charge represents a radical shift. He is French in a place which is terribly English, and he is a performer not a composer.
French cultural politics will not affect Aimard’s Aldeburgh, though as golden boy of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Inter-contemporain (where he became solo pianist at 19 in 1976) he is unlikely to bring in minimalists. But nor will British cultural politics. Unlike most of his predecessors, who never quite exorcised the founders incipient paranoia, Aimard seems to have no hump at all and to be entirely engaged in helping audiences hear and inhabit music with affection and deep interest the way he so evidently does, judging from how he plays.
The festival highlights this year were a miniature Orpheus and Euridice opera from Harrison Birtwistle called The Corridor, and a visit by the leading American modern composer, Elliott Carter, now in his 101st year, together with a dozen performances of different works by Carter, including the premiere of his setting of Ezra Pounds Pisan Canto 81 for baritone entitled On Conversing with Paradise.
On the Saturday morning after Carter’s arrival in Suffolk Aimard slightly haltingly interviewed him for 45 minutes in the new Britten Studio at Snape, newly converted from a derelict part of the Makings and as acoustically impressive as the fabulous main Snape concert-hall. This was a blissful and historic occasion. This is a man who is still writing music because he enjoys it and because he has loosened up about using his creative genius.
Prompted by Aimard he explained how he was interested in Charles Ives and the then avant garde from an early age. Then in the 1950s, finding the diatonic solutions always sounding stale, he changed tack, and his constant interest since has been in working out the precise choice harmonies when using Schoen-berg’s ‘vertical’ approach to the serial organisation of music on J 12-note principles. His abstract music has now grown much less hyperactively detailed and knotty. He is almost laid back about how it all fits together: ‘Sometimes I don’t work it out, and just do what I like.’
Carter went to the piano to demonstrate chords with all the notes available. Then Aimard, playing with a sensitive almost polyphonic expressive lyricism, gave the world premiere of miniature piano pieces written for conductor James Levine. The works in the evening concerts with their kaleidoscopic assemblies of expressively orchestrated notes in rapid riffs or deep dramatic slices, no phrase ever long enough to be a retainable tune, were full of colour and drama, but never showed narrative development.
Garsington Opera this year has shown more daring than Glyndebourne, Grange Park, Holland Park and the Buxton Festival put together in giving the British premiere of Bohuslav Martinu’s unusually acerbic and emotionally complicated Goldoni adaptation, Mirandolina. Outside London and Leeds the opera repertoire is overwhelmingly conservative.
Admittedly this wittily constructed, sour but truthful comedy uses a style of neo-classical that could not possibly frighten the horses: Garsington is definitely not Aldeburgh. Martinu’s Greek Passion based on the Kazantzakis novel is his best known and most performed work, and in its revised version it is an operatic masterpiece. Mirandolina is merely a superbly turned, well-made comedy – and therefore exactly what twentieth-century opera needed more of. Comedy in theatre and opera certainly separates the men from the boys.
It’s about an attractive, brainy innkeeper being pursued by a pair of aristocrats lodging with her. Another aristo – the Cavaliere of Ripafratta is a confirmed bachelor. Our heroine decides to make him fall for her, full knowing that the man she is really going to marry is her loyal, modest barman/valet Fabrizio. It is all very funny and musically delightful, and if the humour sounds heartless, well, it is. But you could say the same about Cosifan tutte, Mozart and Da Ponte’s most epicurean essay on the foibles of humanity.
Martin Duncan’s colourful clever staging, beautifully designed by Francis O’Connor, never slips up. The music is energetically propelled by conductor Martin Duncan. And the cast is flawless, led alluringly by Juanita Lascarro in the title role with Geoffrey Dolton as the misogynist knight, back in operatic harness for the first time in many years and very good indeed too. Colombian-born, Frankfurt-based Lascarro’s performance effortlessly explains the triumph of womanhood, while impeccably communicating Jeremy Sams’s lively English translation, this being only the second time Garsington Opera (founded by the late Leonard Ingrams, who was committed to original language) has done anything in translation – the first time being Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor in 1995 in a version by my wife Meredith Oakes.
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