An easy piece by a great composer is always suspicious programming. Does anyone truly love this music? Schumann’s Manfred Overture sounds to me like the tame equivalent of a Penny Dreadful, something churned out for a brief moment’s entertainment, written to be forgotten. The reason is that this music holds no secrets. The audience is always one bar ahead of the composer, and expectation is neither set up nor thwarted. For anyone who might adore this music, this was a solid performance by the Orchestra of the Komische Oper under Michael Francis.

Ian Bostridge © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Ian Bostridge
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

I came to hear Ian Bostridge sing. He has been a favourite since I heard his near-perfect The Rake’s Progress and his recording of Hans Werner Henze's song cycle Songs from the Arabian, written especially for his unique talents. Britten’s Nocturne, second on the billing, is an eccentric orchestral song-cycle, fusing eight poems by as many poets. Half of the wonder of it is how the poems seem to interlock as if they weren’t all written in entirely different eras. Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats, and Shakespeare. Apart from the choice of poets there is something distinctly English about the music: perverse, immaculate, twee and waspish by turns.

The work begins in hushed lightness and mists of sound. The atmosphere felt wobbly at first, the Komische Oper strings being unsure of their own intentional dissonance. Instrumental nerves were discarded as the music bound on, with particularly deft acrobatics from flute and bassoon. Britten always had a bit of a thing for the moods of night, and his moonlit music was serenely evocative with harp and pizzicato illuminations.

Bostridge appeared on stage as if put-upon, the whole evening seeming a bit of an inconvenience. Maybe this is part of his sullen charm. His face was also entirely unlit throughout, an odd thing to see in an opera house. Once he got stuck in, there were many moments of brilliance and cold fire, whether in falsetto or just belting, but his obvious reliance on the score stole some of the magic away, like a vaudeville conjurer sawing a woman in half and shouting into the audience “Is this the right way to do it?”

Bostridge’s diction is magnificently clean and direct, which allowed us to understand every word of the multifarious texts. It turns out that renaissance poet Thomas Middleton might have been a tad deaf, since he seemed to think that nightingales made no more interesting sound than ‘twit twit’ (and Britten didn’t do much to embellish upon that). Far better to hear every word and have the poetry set your mind wondering than to be lost among exquisitely sung vowels. A particular moment I was looking/ listening forward to was the climax of Wordsworth's But that night when on my bed I lay, but here Bostridge lacked vitriol.

After the interval there were the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes performed with assured magnificence, but another orchestral work by Schumann to put a damper on the evening once more. This is surely the reason that people who don’t like classical music don’t like classical music. The pomposity of Schumann’s Third Symphony seeped from every seam, with neither the extreme beauty or despair of Romanticism’s glorious peaks.