Here's my favourite bit, performed by clay rodents:
- Tristan is based a Welsh story of ambling around damp castles in search of someone with a candle and some shoes;
- Venusberg is a mercifully short novel by Welsh toff Anthony Powell, written before he wasted his life on a Dance to the Music of Time; and
- The Valkyries recall a night of drunken misbehaviour with a secretary from Turku in a Russell Square hotel. She shared her duty-free with me - an act of stunning sacrifice for a Finn.
Here's some Tristan:
Alban Berg's Wozzeck is short and has an excellent aria "Eia Popeia", which I sing to lull our daughter Arianrhod to sleep as she roosts gently above the hearth. It also has a series of long sustained notes that impressed Benjamin Britten, which is odd given his fondness for tunes.
Berg attended a performance of Wozzeck in Leningrad in the pre-Stalin days when Soviet music included factory whistles and choirs of alarmed county gals in workers' smocks. He spent most of his time there in fear of assassination - possibly by the armed wing of the musicians' union whose members had to play it.
Here's the lullaby sung by Merav Barnea:
Berg went one better with Lulu. Let's face it, I was going to like anything named after my favourite russet Scottish songbird. It's long but unfinished, so I cherish the thought that Alban would have cut it down to about an hour if he hadn't died of toothache on Christmas Day in an act of excessive pathos.
Lulu has everything an opera ought to have - lesbians, stockings and top hats - including Jack the Ripper. Here's Saucy Jack, cleaning the streets:
Need put on no airs
He's had them written
By Benjamin Britten.
So fuck off, Tippet!"
That's what our claque of opera thugs used to chant at premieres of Sir Michael Tippet's latest sack of clomping, brass-laden whimsy, and we weren't wrong. Britten unravelled a skein of tenor roles just for our Pete, but I find them reedy. It's only now that they are getting adequately butched up by other singers.
The English tweedy sense of the absurd is uneasy with opera, and Britten was the first to write stage works that weren't Celtic or hilarious - intentionally or otherwise. The Turn of the Screw is an eerie chamber work, with a libretto by exquisite, Welsh Myfanwy Piper that draws out themes from the story with malign delicacy. It also has a mercifully small tenor role.
Here's Miles's queasy aria "Malo" from a fine film version (with Dutch subtitles for the Flemings among you):