Barbican Britten: Phaedra is just one of the events in the venue’s two-week celebration of the composer’s centenary. The programme presents four pieces choreographed by Richard Alston to Benjamin Britten’s music. Alston’s choreography is well suited to Britten’s music: both artists are lyrical, tempered, and incline toward narrative. Words were always one of Britten’s loves – a profound connection that is clearly displayed in his operas and oratorios. He remains the best opera writer in English of the twentieth century, and the works of this evening are all based in song and story.

Les Illuminations (Dancers: Liam Riddick & Nathan Goodman) © Tony Nandi
Les Illuminations (Dancers: Liam Riddick & Nathan Goodman)
© Tony Nandi

What is potentially challenging about the concepts enfolded within the pieces, however, is always contained. Phaedra, both musically and choreographically, is perhaps one of the more refined portrayals of uncontrollable lust and incest, ending in murder and suicide, to grace a stage. The music was written in 1975 and premiered at Aldeburg in 1976, with Janet Baker singing. The libretto was put together by Britten, using sections of Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre. Phaedra is a pared down story-telling, in which Phaedra sings of her infatuation for her husband’s son, Aphrodite’s wrath and the true source of Phaedra’s uncontrollable desire, her confession to Hippolytus of her love, and her confession to her husband, Theseus, which is followed by her suicide. All that in only fifteen minutes. As a cantata, it moves quickly and succinctly along, which creates a problem for dance. There simply is not enough music for any of the characters to develop as characters or dancers. The choreography is not quite reduced to mime, but close enough. What is conceptually interesting about the piece is that the singer is integrated into the movement on stage. Allison Cook, whose voice is a rather weighty mezzo, moves well on stage and was easily incorporated into the dance. The fact that she isn’t a dancer, however, added to the mime-like quality of the on-stage movement. I’m all for mixing art forms, but Phaedra needs another thirty minutes of music to succeed as choreography, or as a contemporary performance piece.

The other pieces on the programme succeed where Phaedra fails. The opening dance, Lachrymae, was choreographed to variations on a theme from If My Complaint Could Passions Move, a love lament by John Dowland. The choreography begins with a tender duet danced by Nancy Nerantzi and Nathan Goodman. The two couples that follow in individual episodes pick up differing emotional themes; the third movement is the most compelling in its impassioned turbulence. A female solo by dancer Oihana Vesga Bujan follows, and it’s all wrapped up with a decorous finale. There is nothing showy, and the dance’s overall feel is lovely and poignant. The music provided by the chamber ensemble Britten Sinfonia was simply celestial, with director Pekka Kuusisto playing solo viola, a virtuosic part originally written for William Primrose.

Following was Hölderlin Fragments: the unusual song cycle known as Sechs Hölderlin Fragmente, which is also a series of poems, by the nineteenth-century German poet, that are mostly about the sorrows of love. One song stood out in particular: Youth (Die Jugend). An ecstatic memoir of childhood – “I grew up to the sound / Of whispering trees, / And learned to love / Among the flowers” – the choreography was ebullient, and the dancing, by Nathan Goodman, even more buoyant and vivacious. The tenor, Robin Tritschler, was gorgeous – with a sweetness and restraint that seemed utterly congruent to the music and made Britten’s setting shine.

Above all, however, I enjoyed the choreography and music of Les Illuminations. Most of the programme originates from a darker range of emotions: love’s sorrow and the pain and fury of illicit desire. Although these appear here and there among Rimbaud’s texts, for the most part the piece is full of ecstatic fantasies. As the narrator sings, “I alone hold the key to this wild parade”, the visions that the words offer are compelling. Underlined with Britten music, they pull the listener into a quick-moving world of hallucinatory imagination. Liam Riddick dances the sturdy and questing role of Rimbaud, and Nathan Goodman dances his lover, Verlaine. Elly Braund is Being Beauteous, the lovely muse that steals away the poet Verlaine, while Rimbaud dreams. First performed in 1940, the music was written for high voice and string ensemble. I have to say, the music often drew my attention away from the dancers. Even though they had the stronger visual presence, I found myself staring at the orchestra and tenor, again Robin Tritschler, who were upstage. The music may have had the stronger presence, finally, and that alone is enough to recommend it.

The Richard Alston Dance Company’s performances of Phaedra are part of Barbican Britten, the two-week celebration of the composer’s centenary running from November 6 to 24. Phaedra, along with Holderlin Fragments was commissioned by the Barbican for this event.