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More from Verbier: 10 pianists, 4 pianos, 2 rarities [Jul. 29th, 2009|12:13 pm]
Michael Church
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I never heard the Cypriot pianist Nicolas Economou, killed aged 40 in a car crash in 1993, but I’d heard about him. Friedrich Durrenmatt, Maximilian Schell, Arthur Miller, and Volker Schlondorff were among his (for a musician unexpected) friends; Martha Argerich, with whom he played chamber music, described him as a creature of outstanding intelligence, with a spirit at once warm, fastidious, and fantastical. He studied in Moscow, settled in Germany, but always championed the arts of his native island; he composed and conducted, wrote philosophical essays and poetry, and was constantly pushing out the boundaries of what his instrument could achieve; improvising with Chick Corea led to a CD, On Two Pianos, where he and the American jazzer interacted fruitfully.

Two years ago a previously unknown manuscript turned up in his still incompletely-excavated archive, and at Verbier we heard it: Vivaldi’s "Le Quattro Stagioni" arranged for four pianos. Well, why not? Almost everything imaginable has been done with this work - 600 different versions to date, including a tango one by Gidon Kremer - and though four boxes of hammers are about as far as you could get from the original bowed strings, it ought at least to be interesting.

And it certainly was. "Spring" came clad in pearlised high cascades, and bewitched and exhilarated us. "Summer" opened with a great stillness, which dissolved into a riot of bustling percussive activity; a breath of wind gave way to a raging tempest, with every effect in the pianistic book being pressed into service. And if the massed pianos failed to convey the grating cruelty of Vivaldi’s winter blasts, they did set up a series of magical atmospheres, much enhanced by the way the four Steinways were arranged in a circumambient square. A curiously faithful translation - and at the same time a completely new work. It should be heard again, though - given the complication of hiring and transporting four such beasts - I’m not sure where.

Here, led by that supreme chamber-player Manny Ax, its presentation was quintessentially Verbieresque: Yuja Wang and Alessio Bax were the other constants, with the fourth position being occupied by a different player for each season. For this game of musical chairs, Argerich, Kissin, and the other grandees stood back to let the next generation shine: no surprise that 21-year-old Yuja Wang should leave the most indelible impression, both through her pianism and her exquisite person. This Curtis Institute-trained Chinese, whose Chopin, Scriabin, and Ligeti disc I praised in May, is without doubt the next big star in the pianistic firmament: watch out for the flurry on the net, the ecstatic print and video profiles. I predict ten heady years, before maturity presents her with challenges of a different sort. Nobody can trade on youth for ever.

If this arrangement was a rarity, the four-piano work by Milhaud which preceded it was scarcely less so. "Paris suite pour quatre mains" was his excited response to the sounds he heard from his window, and the six pieces moving from Montmartre to the Tour Eiffel had an infectiously urban gusto; hardly a masterpiece, but definitely worth an airing. The same applies to the four-piano treatment of ‘Carmen’ which Mack Wilberg wrote for the Los Angeles Piano Quartet, and which rounded off this evening: an oblique, wrong-note, spookily negative image of Bizet’s all too familiar music.

The other big mid-festival event was Thomas Quasthoff’s recital of Schubert’s "Die Schone Mullerin" with Emanuel Ax at the piano. There has recently been some muttering about Quasthoff being in vocal decline - that his voice is no longer "supported" as it should be. No hint here of any such problem: he projected comfortably to every corner of Verbier’s substantial church, with the drama as poignant as one could wish. Interviewing him for the Independent on Sunday last winter, I got the full measure of his heroism; why his shockingly candid autobiography The Voice remains unpublished in Britain, despite its success in America, is a mystery. What are the publishers waiting for? He’s still in his prime, so get it out now.

Verbier: The Three Basses - and Lang Lang [Jul. 23rd, 2009|11:43 am]
Michael Church
It’s never happened before, and won’t happen again, but what we have here - in a big tent on top of a high Swiss mountain - is an extraordinary line-up. Bryn Terfel and Rene Pape - the world’s greatest Wagnerian basses - with fellow-bass Thomas Quasthoff (all pictured, left), the world’s most moving exponent of Schubert Lieder, perched on his high stool between them. And what they are doing is cabaret - a gamey mix of Broadway hits, with ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ recurring like a leitmoiv in a variety of forms. "I can sing higher - lower - longer…" -they take it in turns to outdo each other, with Quasthoff bringing the house down with a bawled "Fuck you" when Terfel, in basso profundo mode, wins a round.

He and Quasthoff - to whom thalidomide plus a Dickensianly awful German "special" school dealt an atrocious hand, but whose subsequent life represents an unparalleled triumph of the will - are cabaret veterans, and take to this game like ducks to water; they round things off gracefully with one of Terfel’s signtaure tunes, ‘Danny Boy’. Pape, who is a perfectionist to his fingertips, finds it harder to get into the swing of things. But what’s fascinating is to see how these very different voices, each backed by an outsize personality, emerge in such an unaccustomed format. They’ve only had one rehearsal, and the show is rough at the edges, but that’s part of the pleasure.

But this is only the half of it, because at the piano - and the man whose brainchild this weird encounter is - is another outsize personality in the form of Lang Lang. The basses had been singing "Don Giovanni" the night before, and as it was Lang Lang's turn to have carte blanche for a night, why not follow that with this? Meanwhile, as violinist Vadim Repin and cellist Mischa Maisky have been playing with him in the first half of this evening, why not rope them in too? Maisky vamps, Repin brings a touch of bluegrass, and Lang Lang tickles the ivories as though he’s been playing cabaret all his short life.

This instrumental trio - another unlikely yoking - have come together to give a first public airing for a programme they will soon be recording for Deutsche Grammophon: Rachmaninov’s youthful "Trio elegiaque" plus the great trio Tchaikovsky composed in memory of his friend and mentor, Nikolai Rubinstein. These pieces work well together, and though one could sense these musicians - all superstars in the classical firmament - sizing each other up, and feeling their way towards musical synergy, it’s a fair bet that the resulting Cd will be a success. DG hope that its sprinkling of Lang Langian stardust will help rope in a new audience for chamber music, and good luck to them. A few blogs ago, I accused Lang Lang of compulsive self-aggrandizement: having watched his ultra-professional behaviour as a chamber player, I take it all back.

All this is why the Verbier Festival is such an important annual fixture. The world’s greatest musicians don’t just come to strut their stuff – they come to experiment, try out new works, and new combinations. And though it’s an exclusive event, packed (and financially supported) by droves of the super-rich, it also becomes everyone’s property thanks to its presence on the net. Classic FM are doing daily podcasts, and Medici Arts are broadcasting it live on film. Click on www.medici.tv and watch Martha Argerich play Scarlatti like the wind.

All pictures courtesy of Verbier Festival
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Chechnya is part of Europe: Brown, Miliband, and BBC please note [Jul. 17th, 2009|12:22 pm]
Michael Church

This has been a depressingly typical week with the British media, which, led by the BBC, have displayed their default bias in time-honoured style. The airwaves have been saturated with wall-to-wall coverage (led by dark-suited presenters) of planes landing, coffins being marched to the cemetery, endlessly recycled footage of our boys in the field, and discussions in Parliament about a few more helicopters to prosecute a glaringly unwinnable war. This is the coverage the government wants, so the BBC obliges. With our allegedly clever young Foreign Secretary linking Helmand with ‘violence on the streets of Britain’, any hope of sanity prevailing at government level looks remote.


Meanwhile Miliband - plus Brown, plus an obedient BBC - is pursuing Blair’s policy of turning a blind eye to the continuing outrage in Chechnya. Yet Chechnya, unlike Afghanistan, is part of Europe. On Wednesday, Natalia Estemirova - whose brave reports (see the front page of today’s Independent) have been the outside world’s best source of information on Ramzan Kadyrov’s psychopathic depredations - was kidnapped and shot, with her body being dumped in a road in neighbouring Ingushetia. Like Putin after Anna Politkovskaya’s murder, President Medvedev has held up his hands in horror, but we can be sure, as before, that the murderers won’t be brought to justice. This story got a few minutes on BBC World on the day it happened, followed by a passing mention yesterday, but today it’s just water under the bridge.


There are plenty of BBC journalists who would like to challenge this selective blindness, but their bosses won’t let them: don’t rock the boat. But with unrest spreading across the (largely Muslim) North Caucasus like an incipient tidal wave, the boat may sink anyway. Meanwhile Russia remains determined to prevent the outside world knowing what’s going on there. In 2006, when recording in North Ossetia for my Chechen folk-music CD (Songs of Defiance, Topic Records), I discovered to what absurd lengths Russian censorship can go. When the police heard that a Western musicologist was on the loose - I wasn’t even flying the journalistic flag - they rushed round, stopped the recording session, questioned me for three hours, declared that I had committed a ‘crime’ by recording without government permission (as if they would have given it!), and bundled me out of the country.


And while the West turns a blind eye, so does most of the Muslim world. Chechnya has now even been largely abandoned by the liberal-left, who write it off as a ‘failed state’. Solzhenitsyn described the Chechens in the gulags as the one group who would not give in: it's possible that the crushing poverty and fear which Chechens now routinely endure has finally broken that will. But if you read Tony Wood’s ‘Chechnya: The Case for Independence’, which is both a brilliant polemic and a definitive history, you may conclude that there is still hope for this perennially persecuted nation. 


Music's primacy: The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne [Jul. 15th, 2009|01:39 pm]
Michael Church
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My colleague Adrian Hamilton argues in the Comment pages that there’s too much Shakespeare on the London stage at present. No disrespect to the Bard’s greatness, he says, just a touch of indigestion. I know what he means, but would widen the thought. Throughout the 70s and 80s I was a hopelessly-addicted theatre junkie, four or five nights a week, every week. This was as much about discovering new writing on the fringe, as about savouring the delights of the National. But around 1990 I noticed that I was more often leaving at the interval than staying to the end - my addiction had passed. Being shut in a darkened auditorium with a bunch of desperately self-projecting actors had begun to feel like an incarceration, and if the play was anything less than first-rate, the experience was unendurable.

Transferring my allegiance to opera, I gradually understood what it was that I had fallen out of love with: the self-regarding nature of the actor’s trade, at least as practised in London. This goes not just for the media-friendly wannabes in the junior ranks, but also to the top. When people talk of Olivier’s Henry V, or McKellen’s Richard II - or even Jude Law’s Hamlet - the focus is squarely on the actor, whose performance is seen as his personal apotheosis. He, as much as Shakespeare, becomes what the thing is about. This way of thinking is deeply embedded in theatreland’s unconscious: it was always there, but the cult of celebrity has greatly intensified it.

Opera, which has given us the term prima donna, is far from immune to this disease. Pavarotti, who couldn’t act to save his life, became a self-created sacred monster: when he sang ‘Turandot’, it was to glorify his own voice, rather than Puccini’s. But since the composer has in some respects done the stage director’s work for him - indicating in detail how a role should be sung - there’s a built-in protection against self-aggrandisement by singers. Music demands a humility on the part of the performer, almost an anonymity, in the face of the work being performed. Liberties are rationed by the professional discipline required. Angela Gheorghiu’s (above, left) off-stage behaviour may sometimes be a story in itself, but when she sings ‘Tosca’ as brilliantly as she does at present in the Royal Opera production, all one registers is her consummate artistry - and the scale of Verdi’s genius. Between opera-singing and acting lies a greater gulf than is sometimes realised.

Such thoughts were crystallised for me by Jonathan Kent’s new production of Purcell’s ‘The Fairy Queen’ at Glyndebourne. This ‘semi-opera’, with its anonymous libretto loosely based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, juxtaposes acted scenes with sung ones, and I found myself increasingly impatient for the actors to finish, so the singers could start. This was more than just the consequence of an unequal battle between cod-Shakespeare and vintage Purcell. And it was not that the actors weren’t good: they were mostly RSC and RNT regulars, with Sally Dexter and Joseph Millson bringing majesty to Titania and Oberon, and Desmond Barrit making an irresistibly funny Bottom, while the ensemble performance of the misaligned lovers was as good as it gets. But what struck me was this little quartet’s sheer actorishness: by the way each had worked out his/her personal comic routine, and was plugging it for all they were worth.

Whenever the actors fell silent, we were free to float off in an experience beyond the limits of speech. Designer Paul Brown’s fertile imagination has run riot as never before, creating worlds beyond worlds with a range of reference including Disney and Max Ernst, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the Renaissance painter-fantasist Guiseppe Arcimboldo - and not excluding a stageful of inventively copulating rabbits. Kim Brandstrup’s choreography gives the masques a wonderful suggestiveness, while William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment weave exquisite spells from the pit. As for the singers, no praise is too high for tenor Ed Lyon (whose sound has an extraordinary sweetness), for bass Andrew Foster-Williams (whose incarnation of Winter might be Edward Scissorhands’ granddad), and for their melodious fellow-spirits. When the incomparable Carolyn Sampson (right) deploys her delicate artistry in ‘The Plaint’, the earth holds its breath.

At moments like this, one remembers that theatre for the ancient Greeks initially meant song and dance. And one realises anew the truth of Walter Pater’s dictum: all art aspires to the condition of music.

‘The Fairy Queen’ is sold out at Glyndebourne, but this production comes to the Proms on July 21.
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Royal Opera heroes: DiDonato, Florez, Tramonti - and Peter Katona [Jul. 6th, 2009|10:45 am]
Michael Church
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Is there anything mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (left) can’t do? As the scorned Donna Elvira in ‘Don Giovanni’, her sulphurous rage incinerates everything it touches; as Handel’s jealous Medea, she runs the gamut from plangent wistfulness to enraged coloratura; shaking her tousled blonde mane, she does raunchiness with the best of them - her first ambitions lay on Broadway - yet her sound is always beautiful, and never at the expense of the drama. In Covent Garden’s revival of the Leiser-Caurier ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia’ she unexpectedly found herself facing the biggest test of her career, and handled it with absolute brilliance.

We had the dream Latin line-up, led by Juan Diego Florez (below, right) as Almaviva, with Pietro Spagnoli as Figaro, Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo, and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Basilio, with Antonio Pappano in the pit. Florez’s singing was as usual beyond compare, Spagnoli brought an irresistible burly forcefulness to the title role, Furlanetto did astonishing and surreal things with his ‘slander’ aria, while the protean Corbelli became commedia dell’arte incarnate; the chorus nimbly doubled up as musicians, soldiers, and G&S policemen; and DiDonato’s flouncing and petulant opening aria - hurling darts at the wall to underline her frustration - had all the heft one could wish for.

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The beauty of Jephtha sung straight [Jun. 25th, 2009|12:20 pm]
Michael Church
Erupting in ecstatic roars after three hours of white-hot passion, a packed Barbican audience rammed home a point which conductor Paul McCreesh (left) had made before he led his army onstage. This late oratorio by Handel deserved to be performed as often as Beethoven's Ninth, he declared in a pre-performance chat. Oh yeah, one felt like saying, the usual directorial hyperbole… My only memory of Jephtha was Katie Mitchell's staging for ENO, which over-strenuously tried to make up for the fact that it wasn't meant to be staged, and thus fatally deflected attention from the music itself.

The plot closely mirrors that of Idomeneo. The Israelite leader Jephtha vows that if he is successful in battle, he will sacrifice the first living creature he encounters, which turns out to be his only child Iphis. As the knife hovers, an angel appears and announces that Iphis - who nobly hasn’t complained - will be spared if she takes a vow of perpetual virginity. The message of Thomas Morell’s sanctimonious libretto is that self-sacrifice is the means of redemption, and virginity an excellent thing: the message of the music is not so bland. Handel was going blind: the stark way he sets Pope's cold maxim - "Whatever is, is right" - suggests he was wrestling with his own fear of the impending unknown.

The work opens in sunlight, dives down to Hades, then surfaces again: bold melodies in major keys give way to contorted chromaticism and dense counterpoint, before their transfigured resolution. McCreesh had not only signed up the best tenor in the oratorio game as Jephtha - Mark Padmore (right) - but also mezzo Christianne Stotjin and soprano Mhairi Lawson as his wife and daughter, and these three singers carried all before them.

Padmore’s artistry allowed him to deliver every repeat of every aria with subtle variations in colour; the recitative in which Jephtha all but falls into madness acquired the oracular intensity of Hamlet’s "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow". The ironic juxtaposition of rejoicing and lamenting at the plot’s pivotal moment became edge-of-the-seat stuff, as dramatic as any opera - and this was a mere ‘concert performance’ at the Barbican!

Stotjin's dark art is subtler, but no less arresting; Mhairi Lawson's soaring arias were grace incarnate. And in William Docherty as the Angel we got a treble whose voice rang triumphantly out over the full chorus and orchestra - he's a "quirister" at Winchester College, where they clearly know how to train them. Trebles with this ability are very thin on the ground, so Docherty should make the most of his voice while it lasts.

Many conductors cut great lumps out of oratorios like this, claiming that the repetitions are boring: McCreesh's artistry allowed him - with his superb Gabrieli Consort plus the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir - to give us every repeat Handel wrote, without any whiff of déjà entendu. Bravo - and encore!

(Photos: Paul McCreesh by Sheila Rock, Mark Padmore by Marco Borggreve)

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Kiarostami and Minghella: ENO film directors [Jun. 23rd, 2009|03:32 pm]
Michael Church
After Sally Potter’s cack-handed shot at Carmen - "stripping away the flamenco clichés’ to reveal what she pretentiously termed the ‘secret emotional geometry" - film directors have been wisely kept away from English National Opera. But Abbas Kiarostami’s take on Cosi Fan Tutte - imported from Aix-en-Provence, and resurrected here by his assistant Elaine Tyler-Hall, because the Foreign Office perversely wouldn’t let him into the country - is a reminder of what enlightenment such people can bring. And when one sees this production and Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly on successive nights, the message is reinforced.

This Iranian film-maker’s screen work dissects personal and social relationships with patiently forensic skill: his latest film, Shirin, which focuses on close-ups of 100 women as they watch a film about a love-triangle, goes on UK release next week, and could hardly be more topical. He describes Mozart’s world as a ‘closed-up heaven’, into which he wants to let fresh air: his solution is so obvious that it’s amazing it’s been so seldom used. Quite simply, he replaces a painted backdrop with a cinematic one: a row of busy cafes in front of which Don Alfonso and the boys hatch their plot; a misty, dreamy view of the Bay of Naples, across which a red-sailed yacht slowly approaches, then bears the boys off to war; and a simulacrum of the theatre orchestra (plus a duplicate conductor) against which the denouement unfolds. So simple: if the third moving backdrop is somewhat distracting - one is aware of the real conductor trying to keep pace with the filmed one, and not always succeeding - the first two make gracefully suggestive reinforcements of the drama. The production itself has flaws: for example, the ending, which should underline whatever moral the director has settled for, here disintegrates pointlessly. But the singing, if not blindingly marvellous, is uniformly first-rate. You can catch this show until July 5.

Meanwhile it’s good to have Minghella’s Butterfly back, revived by his choreographer (and widow) Carolyn Choa: first time round, I was not totally convinced, but now I realise how apt his vision is. From the moment his performance space is revealed - a huge sweeping rake, with a correspondingly raked ceiling curving down to it, so that everything seems destined to be swallowed up by the horizon - we are drawn inexorably into the drama. And never has that drama been more clearly one of rape: the gorgeous costumes, the black-veiled figures manipulating symbolic puppets, the giant mirror which shows what goes on behind the sliding screens, as well as in front of them - everything deepens the pathos of the victim-culture. The vicious crimson stain which spreads across the entire stage as Cio-Cio San expires is the sort of coup only a film-maker would dream up. Minghella was a deeply musical film director - see how Gabriel Yared’s score pervades and underscores every scene in his masterpiece, The Talented Mr Ripley - and he would have worked more wonders with opera, had death not snatched him with such untimely speed.
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Elliott Carter comes to Aldeburgh [Jun. 22nd, 2009|05:38 pm]
Michael Church
What makes a man approaching his 101st birthday fly the Atlantic, and penetrate the remotest reaches of Suffolk? "You can’t keep a composer away from his music," explains a smiling Elliott Carter, in Aldeburgh to witness a blizzard of his works in performance - plus the unveiling of a new one - and beginning his stay with a public interview with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, in which he proves that chronological time is irrelevant, and you’re only as old as you feel you are.

What’s fascinating about Carter is the way he didn’t find his voice until he was seventy. "I’m a fanatic," he tells us, in the airy new Britten Studio. "I wouldn’t be happy unless I was writing music, trying to do things I haven’t done before." He talks of the pleasure of finding that voice, and using it to explore the layering of time, which is something (pace Proust) which music does better than words. And it’s piquant to hear this arch-modernist declare that his polyphonic experiments picked up where the Elizabethan madrigalists had left off.

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Ian Bostridge up a blind alley [Jun. 15th, 2009|11:59 am]
Michael Church
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It sounded a neat idea, as Ian Bostridge outlined it in the Guardian. The Threepenny Opera’s perennial relevance - particularly marked, as capitalist binge leads to universal bust - makes it worth looking at anew: singing Lieder with Dorothea Roschmann and Angelika Kirchschlager prompted him to wonder "how wonderful it would be" to hear them tackling Brecht-Weill. Why not stand the usual tradition on its head, and replace singing actors by acting singers? "There’s room for both grit and cantilena" argued Bostridge: the Lieder-singers’ commitment to the words made them particularly suited to this challenge.

Thus it was that we gathered at the Barbican to hear this theory put into practice, with the aid of the versatile Klangforum Wien led by that arch-funster HK Gruber, who would both conduct and sing Peachum in his inimitable chansonnier style; as this was a concert performance, there would also be a narrator. And what an intriguing line-up: Roschmann as Polly, Kirchschlager as Jenny, Bostridge as MacHeath, plus three Austrian/German singers. Would they be as wonderful as promised?

The show seemed discombobulated from the start. The German narrator was stuck out in the distance, and stumbled over his words, while Gruber’s dry beat didn’t swing. Then Bostridge, who had been desperately mugging to convey the right sort of loucheness, opened his mouth. With hair slicked back, Tarantino shades, and his skeletal form encased in a sharp gangster suit, he’d done what he could to transcend the etiolated persona in which he sings Schubert and Britten, but the results were painful both to hear and watch. When he went down low, his voice disappeared: what was the mysterious "sound engineer" in the cast-list doing? Capriciously turning a mike on and off? When audible, alas, Bostridge’s sound was a mere wispy parody of the roughness which is a sine qua non for this part.

On the other hand, Roschmann gave Polly wonderful oomph, while Hanna Schwartz and Florian Boesch hit the button brilliantly as Celia and Tiger Brown; Gruber’s singing was nicely in character too. Kirchschlager projected raunchiness with her body, but seemed vocally constrained just as Bostridge was, if not to the same degree. Were they both instinctively protecting their voices, as all classical singers must, from the damage which unbridled raucousness would do? This is why, for example, the Handelian mezzo Sarah Connolly - initially an accomplished jazz singer - now doesn’t dare sing jazz. "It’s just too dangerous," she tells me. I think Bostridge may belatedly have discovered this too. Stick to Britten, Schubert, and Mozart, Ian: this is a blind alley.

From flash opera to flatpack opera [Jun. 11th, 2009|01:46 pm]
Michael Church
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After singing waiters, and "flash opera" - a musical mob suddenly bursting into song in Waterloo station - supermarket opera is a relatively sedate concept; indeed, Glyndebourne’s go-ahead education department did one back in the Nineties. But Flatpack Opera takes the idea on interestingly, being not only set in a supermarket, but making that its subject. Thus it is that I find myself mingling with bemused shoppers in the entrance to the Wembley IKEA, watching two leggy dancers cavorting in a cascade of yellow shopping bags, while a guitarist sings his West Coast heart out.

We are called to attention by a soprano chanting into a megaphone, and lured upstairs to the bedsit department, where a young man practises scales on a keyboard while his friend unpacks and assembles a bookcase. The comedy is largely wordless, mildly surreal, and seemingly improvised: two Middle-Eastern families who have been busily shopping put down their bags and join those who have come to see the show (no money changing hands, for this is free). On then, to another bedsit, where a young couple are setting up house, and the wife has been shopping: the trouble is, her husband likes nothing she has bought, and in the space of five minutes we see their relationship disintegrate - in song. Led on by a violinist like a Pied Piper with an ever-lengthening following, we move from scene to scene: in the kitchen department a Nigella-figure prepares a dinner with her partner, making Evelyn Glennie-type percussion as they chop and grate and slice; in the bedroom area, couples swap partners.

It’s all rather fey and whimsical, but the singing and playing by the small ensemble - strings, keyboard, accordion, guitar - is of the highest order: Lea’s singers are all young high-fliers, and she herself is at music-theatre’s cutting edge, while her composer Tom Lane works with a variety of smart quartets and the LSO. The idiom he’s settled for here is minimal-atonal, but oddly easy on the ear: perfect as an introduction to the art-form, which is what this event clearly was for its accidental audience. Some shoppers were so unnerved that they pretended it wasn’t happening at all, others moved from bewilderment to enjoyment, and forgot their shopping entirely. The best thing about it was the total lack of pretention or explanation: take it or leave it, was the message, and most people happily took it. Lea now hopes to do the show in other IKEAs across Europe: if she does, she should stiffen its sinews, and give the plot some bite.

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