Slapp Happy fans may be in for a shock if they haven't paid careful attention to the liners before slapping on this CD. The first impression is that either Peter Blegvad or Anthony Moore has gone through quite a vocal transformation -- into an operatic tenor, no less. Well, of course it's neither Blegvad nor Moore, but rather tenor John Harris in the role of Forecast, a tax collector. Forecast is one of several key characters in Camera, a television opera, with an occasionally lush orchestral score by Moore, a libretto by Blegvad, and a major performance from Dagmar Krause as the character Melusina. Camera is a magical domain where the laws of nature and society do not apply, and where Melusina resides in utter separation from the world. Forecast is sent to Camera by Hardwicke (Nicole Tibbels), head of the tax office, to collect back taxes from Melusina. However, Forecast is transformed by his visit to Melusina's world and becomes sympathetic to her, which leads to fateful and mysterious turns of events when the cold-hearted Taft (Quentin Hayes) is dispatched by Hardwicke to Camera, charged with succeeding where Forecast failed. There are intriguing concepts and philosophical underpinnings to this work -- for example, did Melusina create Camera or vice versa -- and the sometimes compelling music of this modern opera is well-suited to the dramatic exposition as it unfolds (most, but not all, of the libretto is printed in the CD booklet). Also, as expected, Dagmar is tremendous; she has proven her wide range as a vocalist in both avant-garde and pop recordings, and now excels in this operatic role. With a richer, deeper, and fuller voice than during her earlier days and, as Melusina, not asked to adopt any over-the-top mannerisms, Dagmar walks a line that would seem to appeal to both pop and art music listeners.
That's probably not true for the other singers, however, who possess undeniable skill but whose traditional, emotive operatic style may strike Slapp Happy fans as a bit stilted and uptight. In short, Dagmar can walk that line but, on the evidence here, Harris and the others cannot. The likes of Phil Minton and even Kate Westbrook, both of whom handled weighty material with the Mike Westbrook Orchestra, would seem better suited to join Dagmar in giving life to Blegvad's libretto. As for the libretto, Blegvad has found words that are usually poetic and only occasionally awkward, and his existential metaphors are consistently thought-provoking. But perhaps Moore presents the greatest surprise, particularly for those only aware of his work as a solo artist and member of Slapp Happy (including the collaborations with Henry Cow). Moore has, however, studied Indian classical music, composed film soundtracks, and also experimented with tape and sound manipulation during his adventurous and multifaceted musical career. With Camera, he demonstrates compositional mastery with an extended-form thematic work performed by five singers, the Balanescu Quartet, bassist Chris Laurence, and woodwind and brass sections, with subtle use of experimental sound textures. Moore composed the music in 1991 and Camera was broadcast on Channel 4 in the U.K.; of course, the visual component is entirely missing from this CD and is doubtless an important facet of the overall experience. As it stands, Camera should be of interest to Slapp Happy fans but perhaps more so to fans of the group's individual members: Dagmar the singer, Blegvad the philosopher/wordsmith, and Moore the contemporary classical composer. It's not really an effort by Slapp Happy the band, which should be apparent as soon as John Harris opens his mouth soon after Camera starts spinning.