There's always a moment, just after you have woken from a dream, when you are still immersed in its world, and yet also dawningly conscious that its reality will soon fade. The harder we clutch at our memory of the dream's specifics, the faster they disappear, and we are left with only remnants: beautiful, yet disjointed. Director Struan Leslie's reimagining of Britten's Les Illuminations song cycle opened the Aldeburgh Festival with an exciting array of circus performers, creating a dreamy evening without plot, but heady with potent mood, emotions and ideas developing across the darkened stage like scudding clouds across a stormy summer sky, culminating in a wonderful account of the cycle from gifted soprano Sarah Tynan.

Sarah Tynan © Mark Allan
Sarah Tynan
© Mark Allan

Circus seems the perfect mode for expressing Britten's setting of Rimbaud's strange, nonsensical and psychedelic poetry, evoking intense atmosphere without plot, and above all, a sense of sprightly play and fun which encouraged the audience to engage, applaud and even giggle. We see classical music at its accessible best when it is presented with such courage, energy and humour. Performers creep out of the dark, peer around cupboards, or climb up precariously stacked furniture: Gary McCann's stark, teetering set creates a 'bedroom skyscraper' landscape with a raised bed to one side where soprano Sarah Tynan 'sleeps' for much of the performance. McCann's costumes, alternating between the sinuous and the sculptural, accentuate the rhythm and reach of each dancer's movements, whether creating organic shapes on the ground or sweeping patterns in the air on ribbons, a large metal ring or a trapeze. While the circus performers are all dressed in monochrome, a range of elaborate and shadowy patterns on their costumes, combined with a wide array of visual textures from nylon to fur, keeps them visually lush. 

Tiago Fonseca and Sarah Tynan © Mark Allan
Tiago Fonseca and Sarah Tynan
© Mark Allan

The first part of the programme was a selection of instrumental pieces chosen by conductor Nicholas Collon to "illuminate the Illuminations": Britten's muscular Young Apollo, Debussy's delicate String Quartet in D Minor, Britten's Reveille for violin and piano, and John Adams' Shaking and Trembling from Shaker Loops. Finally, Les Illuminations burst out onto the stage, Sarah Tynan's floating soprano finally emerging as a glorious climax.   While Rimbaud's original extends to more than 8000 words, Britten's cycle sets only 700 or so: a carefully culled selection, sung in the original French. In his excellent programme notes, Leslie points out that his intention as a director is "illuminate – not describe", or indeed define, what might be going on in this exotic, mysterious piece. The thrice-repeated phrase, "J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage" (I alone hold the key to this savage parade) seems to be the unifying principle of the evening: what happens before the cycle could be the sleeping soprano's dreams, and the cycle itself is her reaction, and reflection, on them, but even that may be too specific an analysis. However, what is certain is that we were treated to glorious playing from the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, who played with skilful relish, making the most of every note without milking any of them, keeping tension high but emotion real.  

The circus ensemble (Sam Cater, Tiago Fonseca, Craig Gadd, Francesca Hyde, Eric McGill, Aislinn Mulligan, Lucie N'Duhirahe, Angeliki Nikolakaki, Matthew Smith) gave a strong, joyful and beautiful performance. Sarah Tynan sang with fabulous attack and cool control, and even got airborne herself more than once, rising into the air on a trapeze and on a ring: for sheer originality, beauty and panache from the entire cast and accompanists, this was an exceptional evening.