Illuminations, Aldeburgh Festival: ‘Never less than spectacular’

Soprano Sarah Tynan took to the trapeze as a Britten song cycle combined with circus acrobatics
Soprano Sarah Tynan and circus artist Tiago Fonseca in 'Illuminations'. Photo: Mark Allan

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Perhaps conservatoires should offer circus training. After all, we are increasingly seeing classical music fused with acrobatics. For its opening show, this year’s Aldeburgh Festival pushed the possibilities to extremes: we saw soprano Sarah Tynan hanging from a trapeze, framed by a hoop and balanced on fellow performers’ hands while performing Britten’s 25-minute song cycle Les Illuminations. Simultaneously, a group of circus artists provided their own response to the music, cartwheeling and somersaulting across the stage.

It was all the idea of director Struan Leslie, who, in his programme notes, explained his rationale: Les Illuminations, like Arthur Rimbaud’s surreal poems, on which it is based, conjures up something strikingly vivid. In fact, Britten repeats one telling line from the poems three times: “I alone hold the key to this wild spectacle.” Add to that what we know from history — that Rimbaud briefly sold tickets for a French circus; that Britten briefly lived under the same roof as a Brooklyn burlesque artist — and surely it makes sense to implant real acrobats?

Well, sort of. Leslie has capitalised on the work’s sensuality; its vibrancy; the surrealism of lines such as “I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple.” What he hasn’t done do is leave much room for ambiguity. In this performance Les Illuminations was prefaced with instrumental works by Debussy (the string quartet), John Adams (Shaker Loops), and two short pieces by Britten, throughout which we see Tynan sprawled on a bed. Are we to read the acrobatics as her dream sequence? It was a rather reductive take on such richly complex works.

Still, it was never less than spectacular, thanks to the efforts of the nine-strong circus ensemble. They moulded their every movement to the music’s emotional drive, whether the jauntiness of Britten’s Young Apollo, complete with a virtuosic display of hat-juggling, or the mystery of that composer’s Reveille for violin and piano, in which one performer floated mid-air. Meanwhile, conductor Nicholas Collon consistently galvanised the members of the Aurora Orchestra, even, at one moment, when he was hoisted off the ground. But, for all that, it was hard to tear one’s eyes from Tynan, who fearlessly attacked her role. And it says a lot that, throughout her physical exertions, her voice retained its jewel-like brilliance.

Festival continues to June 26, aldeburgh.co.uk

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