The Queen wants to be conquered by a man stronger than herself, but when confronted by the wild reality of the Swineherd, she has him beheaded and withers away. Half parable, half riddle, John Harbison’s Full Moon in March hints at the twisted psychology of a Turandot or Salome while heading down an entirely different track – the fear of losing control when confronted by instinct and exposure to the “mess” of intimacy.
Based on a play by W. B. Yeats, Harbison’s 1976 chamber opera – receiving a belated European premiere – made an intriguing centrepiece for Lontano’s Festival of American Music. It requires just 14 performers and occupies barely half an evening, but implies a substantial drama. Anyone familiar with Peter Maxwell Davies’s chamber operas will feel at home.
While the young Harbison – now dean of the academic-conservative school of US composers – knew how to generate intensity in music, he was less adept at forging a successful opera from flawed dramaturgy. The Queen and the Swineheard are confined to one central scena, with the rest dominated by a male and female chorus and a dancer representing the Queen’s “shadow”. The piece fizzles out, and yet its weaknesses were mostly camouflaged by Carmen Jakobi’s simple staging, resourcefully designed by Matthew Deeley and Mark Howland, and choreographed by Gwen Elfyn Jones. The four actor-singers performed with poise.
It was a value-for-money evening, reflecting well on Odaline de la Martinez, Lontano’s conductor. The first half showcased three composers who – judging by these UK premieres – cannot be pigeonholed in any of the fashionable American styles. Arthur Levering’s Still Raining, Still Dreaming was a seamless blend of atmosphere and forward movement, creating a larger sound-world than its modest length and compact instrumentation would suggest. Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Passion Revisited for piano trio draped a baroque idiom in mildly modern dress – easy on the ear if a bit retro. Rand Steiger’s Elliott’s Instruments began as a serious tribute to Elliott Carter’s metric modulation before turning into a light-hearted spoof.
None was strikingly original but each justified itself – as if trying to tell us there is more to American music than jazz and minimalism.