Paul McGrath / Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman: Opera

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Michael Nyman: Opera is a set that includes two previously released albums, Man and Boy: Dada and Love Counts. The music is vintage Nyman, heavily influenced by minimalist textures and repetitive patterns. In each scene of the operas, he tends to set up a groove, usually thickly orchestrated, that continues for a while, sometimes throughout the scene. With this approach, the music doesn't always follow the dramatic arc of the scene with the subtlety that characterizes the most compelling operatic writing. It works best in Man and Boy: Dada, but in Love Counts, the approach is less successful. Nyman can write beautifully for the voice, as he demonstrates in cycles like Lust Songs and Six Celan Songs, but in the operas, the text setting can be astonishingly poor, with misplaced accents and a lack of coherent connection between the text and vocal lines, which are vaguely lyrical, but wandering, melodically blocky, and graceless.

Man and Boy: Dada is a fictionalized account of the end of Dada artist Kurt Schwitters' life, when he was living in poverty in London after the Second World War. It's appropriate that, while Michael Hastings' engaging libretto follows a comprehensible narrative, it has enough Dada elements to leave listeners occasionally scratching their heads, but in a good way. The story concerns Schwitters' relationship with a boy (with whom he is brought together by a shared obsession with bus tickets), and the boy's mother. The music is often effective -- driving, lively, and colorful -- and the vividness with which the characters are drawn makes the opera an engaging emotional experience. There's one terrific, memorable tune, a sentimental tango that appears with gratifying frequency throughout the opera. The piece receives a fine performance based on a production by Almeida Opera, featuring the Michael Nyman Band, conducted by Paul McGrath. Tenor John Graham-Hill, soprano Vivian Tierney, and boy soprano William Sheldon sing passionately and embody the characters with conviction.

The recording of the two-character opera Love Counts also comes from a production by the Almeida Opera. It tells the sentimental story of two unlikely lovers: a math teacher coming out of a physically abusive marriage and an illiterate, innumerate boxer. Nyman generically responds to the mood of each scene -- earnest, conflicted, silly, or romantic -- but the music is mostly bland and without much nuance. Nyman's repetitive style is rhythmically propulsive, but that energy isn't sufficient to sustain interest for two hours because the musical content is so pedestrian and awkwardly inflected, and the orchestration is unimaginative and lacking in variety. The Almeida Opera gives the piece a terrific production, though. Singers Helen Williams and Andrew Slater make the most of what they're given, singing with passion, clarity, and excellent diction; the individuality they bring to their roles makes us care about the characters. On both albums, the Michael Nyman Band generally seems too loud, but otherwise the sound quality is top notch.

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