Opera Review

Roxanna Panufnik The Music Programme BOC Covent Garden Festival, Linbury Studio Theatre, London 26 May 2000 (P&AW)


This entertaining exploration of the possibility of rapprochement between aficionados of modernist and other musical styles, old and new, is set in a tropical jungle, where an UN educational programme is threatened with closure by the arrival of an Inspector (shades of Gogol's Government Inspector and the Local Hero film set in a remote Scottish port). Roxanna Panufnik, daughter of Andrzej Panufnik who lived his later years exiled in London, and her Polish collaborators brought their multi-referenced vision to London in an innovative, up to date, Polish National Opera production from the Teatr Wielki, Warsaw.

The Music Programme is very much a Conceptual Opera, one most likely to appeal to a knowing audience. Moral of the tale: different kinds of music can co-exist, perhaps even happily. However, in this work the illustration of ideas through cardboard characters may limit the sense of personal identification and involvement needed to create a wider audience.

This fable was given in a setting which transformed the austere Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden into an exotic location, visited by wildlife on back projections. The Polish team had used evocative stage design; the action took place partly upon reflective, transparent platforms, which compounded the illusions and blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy. Lighting, sound and video all played their part in creating a fascinating and sometimes bewildering environment in which the story unfolded with considerable panache.

This gifted young composer, who has been making her mark in London's musical life, demonstrated a flexible, imaginative approach to music theatre. Members of the orchestra moved between their allotted space at the side onto the stage. Instead of an overture, several musicians processed across the stage playing small whistles, simulating sounds of the jungle. There was a fluidity of transition between the action in the nine concise scenes, which played continuously for 75 eventful minutes.

The programme synopsis told us about the erotic confusions, the 'maximalist' composer's Mozartian wife 'falling in lust' with the Inspector. The premiere of his magnum opus and purported masterpiece demonstrated his wife's 'high fidelity infidelity' in a manner that only we, the audience, and the culprits would recognise (c.f. the play in Hamlet!). Composer and straying wife were reconciled (echoes of Figaro?), the Inspector departed and the Music Programme would survive until the next financial crisis.

During the course of the inventive score we heard affectionate parodies of various musical modes, with allusions to Bach, Mozart, sprechstimme, big band, Latin-American and Oriental music, demonstrating Roxanna Panufnik's eclecticism, subsumed in a personal mix, and presenting herself very much as a composer of the new Century. The multi-national cast and Polish musicians of the Teatr Wiekli's opera orchestra acquitted themselves well, and perhaps I may be forgiven for not listing their names. This was a real Festival event and I anticipate more will be heard of this little opera following its two Covent Garden performances, and Roxanna Panufnik's progress will be followed with great interest.

Peter & Alexa Woolf

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