Lorca and Music - Sally Burgess, Almeida Ensemble - Almeida Theatre, 17 July 2007
It's not as if any of the music on offer tonight desperately needed a theatrical staging, but the fact that consideration was given to presentation added a dimension beyond the usual stand and deliver.
Conceived as an adjunct to the Tate's current Salvador Dalí exhibition, it offered music by and related to Dalí's sometime friend/lover Federico García Lorca, reputedly an inspiration for Un Chien Andalou.
Although Lorca is now better known as a poet and dramatist, he was a musician first, an accomplished pianist who wrote his own music and also travelled through Andalusia collecting and arranging traditional songs.
Simon Holt's hispanically inflected solo pieces for cello, flute and clarinet opened the performance. With a darkened auditorium, the bare brick back wall of the tiny Almeida uplit in beams of glowing orange and the stage planted haphazardly with music stands we were in a torchlit Spanish garden. The musicians wandered round as they played, sometimes offstage, sometimes back-facing as they worked through the slow sinuous music. The pace stepped up a notch as Sally Burgess closed the first half, sweeping on in a hooded cloak to deliver a throaty canción, simultaneously depositing a few props to be used after the interval.
The second half was decidedly more upbeat than the first, some rhythmic solo guitar being followed by a fascinating couple of scratchy recordings of Lorca himself accompanying singer La Argentinita.
The closer, Berio's Folk Songs performed by Sally Burgess and the full ensemble was the most completely realised piece of the evening, its staging accentuating its inherent theatrical element. Sally Burgess is one of the few singers with the versatility to do justice to the wide range of styles this work needs (and doesn't always get). Unafraid of sounding less than beautiful where authenticity demands it, her often literal dramatic interpretation, props abounding, compensated for the lack of a printed songsheet. Her gestures at times seemed generously sized for the poky Almeida, but then this is expansive writing. And the ensemble fully matched her grit and passion with their fiery execution.
This was the Almeida Opera Festival doing what they do best, picking the work carefully and exploiting the theatrical space and environment to produce something that simply wouldn't have worked in a concert hall, or in a larger house for that matter.