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The main part of the afternoon was given up to a remarkable rarity : the Opera Maschinist Hopkins, by Max Brand, receiving its UK première. Here was Entartete Musik (music banned in the Third Reich because of both its subversion and its composer's Jewish origins) to perfection.

Max Brand. Photo © Thwarted Voices Festival

Hopkins spans several genres : the story, involving a triangular relationship and (early on) a murder, could easily have been treated by, say, d'Albert, Berg or Zemlinsky; the music teeters nearer in places to Weill and Eisler, and the genre is further infused with both early Twenties Expressionism (Kaiser, Toller) and the late Twenties 'Technological Progress' theme that provided such ready parody material for Antheil (who contributed to the libretto) and Prokofiev, as well as Soviet writers of Lenin's last years (Tretyakov), and later, to the plays of Dürrenmatt (The Physicists).

The opera was introduced by none other than Barry Humphries (in his own clothes, more akin to Sir Les Patterson than to Dame Edna Everage), who spoke articulately and interestingly of his own first tentative (and influential) experiences of early 20th century music in his native Melbourne ('a small English provincial town in a corner of South East Asia'), waving tattered scores of Berg and Webern to prove it. Hopkins - 'funny, astringent, aphrodisiacal' (it is, potentially, all of those), received, he pointed out, no less than 37 productions in 1932, shortly before Nazism stepped in.

Here it was the playing of the score, rather than the production, which made the impact. Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra delivered a highly acceptable, excitingly charged performance under Peter Tregear; there's some rather dense, knotty scoring soon after the opening; the atmospheric Interludes are of great importance, and were stikingly well managed; there was some refined woodwind playing for the Act I exchange between Bill (the entrepreneurial ex-factory foreman) and Nell (Jim's adulterous wife); elsewhere one was more aware of detail of scoring and colour in the Second and Third Acts -- amplified violin and saxophone for an initial foxtrot; attractive cello tone; an appealing passage of bass clarinet; and a section for oboe that sounds (not surprisingly) like pure Schreker. The chorus -- by and large -- was good (the upper lines strongest, including a short girl alto solo, early on; and all voices latterly) : the big, intentionally 'Jewish' chorus of Act II, that with Nell late in the same act, and the punchy opening chorus of Act III were especially striking.

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Copyright © 27 January 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK








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