Sound Festival premieres, various venues, Aberdeen, Scotland

It was hard to tell whether the horse was real or imagined. We had gathered on Saturday morning at a farm on Royal Deeside – the most bizarre setting for an opera I have witnessed. The audience of about 40, most of whom had paid £50 for the privilege (lunch included), were on a day’s bus tour of site-specific operas in Aberdeenshire – all commissioned by Sound, an experimental music extravaganza that takes over the northeast of Scotland’s performing arts scene every November.

The horse plays a central role in Bolted, an opera by Pippa Murphy (composer) and Ben Harrison (librettist/director) but, until the last moment of this 50-minute performance, there was ne’er a sight of an animal – only a bale of hay and a saddle in the middle of the stable’s covered courtyard. But there was no doubting the horse’s presence – in the story, in the pre-recorded sound and the role of a solo cellist (Robin Mason) who brought the horse to life in music and acting. Then suddenly, fleetingly, the stable doors opened, the countryside beckoned, and a real horse cantered past on cue, with the wind of freedom in its tail.

Bolted dramatises a love-triangle – a girl (soprano Angela Hardie) so besotted by her horse that her boyfriend (countertenor Daniel Keating-Roberts) feels threatened, even after the horse has bolted. Murphy’s score, an intoxicating mix of folk, madrigal, Britten-esque arioso and pop-rhapsody, veers between lyrical soliloquising and expressive intensity – seamlessly connected and wonderfully atmospheric, even when accompanied by a winter morning’s freezing temperatures.

The secret of Bolted is its power of suggestion. It doesn’t need a fancy set or a big cast to stoke our imagination. It doesn’t even need the stables. Like all the most expressive performances, it creates its own reality, and this one lingered long after the fading of the soprano’s ecstatic repetitions of “My horse” and the silencing of the cellist’s clip-clop rhythms.

Bolted throws up questions about opera in the 21st century. In today’s cross-disciplinary free-for-all, has “opera” lost its meaning? Is “site-specific” merely a conceit, sacrificing quality to novelty of concept and location?

If Bolted jumped those hurdles without tripping, its companion pieces on Saturday’s magical mystery tour did not. Hearing Last One Out in Fraserburgh’s 200-year-old lighthouse was all part of the day’s fun, but the setting shed no illumination on this banal and repetitive pair of monodramas by Gareth Williams and Johnny McKnight.

And, despite powerful performances from actors Pauline Knowles and Alan McHugh, the intimacy of an Aberdeen apartment block only magnified the pitiful lack of music in The Garden, a domestic drama by John Harris and Zinnie Harris.

As for Remember Me, Claudia Molitor’s Cage-like “opera-in-a-desk” at Aberdeen Art Gallery, the performance-art concept was as creaky as the sound.

The only also-ran to combine music and drama effectively was Faustus, a bizarre Marlowe-inspired fantasy by Stephen Deazley and Martin Riley, written for performance in the bus as we drove between venues. Singing cellist Matthew Sharp won us over with his virtuoso rendition.

Like any experimental forum, Sound creates a lot of dross. Its value lies as a playground, helping artists to try things out. It opens the world of opera to creators and audiences who feel inhibited by or excluded from its institutional conventions. And it gives those of us with more traditional ideas of music theatre a whiff of the creative zeitgeist.

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