Doctor Ox's Experiment
reviewed in the Sunday Times by Paul Driver

The two-act opera that Gavin Bryars and poet Blake Morrison have adapted from Jules Verne's novella Une fantaisie du Docteur Ox is the first full-scale new work to be premiered at either of the London houses in several years. Its gestation has been long and its eventual production by English National Opera at the Coliseum was deferred from last season to last Monday, but the upshot is something of a triumph. Doctor Ox's Experiment is a real, singable, musically self-justifying opera, with many of the medium's traditional strengths, if always at a deceptive angle to tradition. It is a work of pungent originality that is never "experimentalist" in the way of earlier Bryars works, but makes a surprisingly close approach to mainstream repertoire.

Texts and imagery from Verne have informed various pieces (including a saxophone concerto) by Bryars, whose sources are as diverse as they are arcane. The story of Dr Ox is one of Verne's least known but exists in a beautifully witty (unattributed) Victorian translation. Set in the little Flemish town of Quiquendone, whose trade is "the manufacture of whipped creams and barley sugar on a large scale", a place where nothing has ever happened, everything runs smooth and slow, municipal decisions are infinitely deferred, and courtships last a decade if a day, Verne's satire imagines a situation in which such civic tranquillity is insidiously undermined.

The anarchic outsider Dr Ox, who uses people in his experiments as other scientists use rats, offers to modernise the town, free of charge, with gas-lighting. But, helped by Ygène (Riccardo Simonetti), he instead floods it with oxygen (Ox-Ygène), looking gleefully on as the Quiquendonians become uncontrollably excited, disrupt a performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, declare war on a neighbouring town over a 700-year old dispute about a cow, and seem to prove his point that human qualities are only a matter of oxygen levels, "mere atoms, like everything else".

The tale's operatic potential, of which the Meyerbeer is an emblem, has to do with its compactness as a fable, its graphic contrasts, its chorus-like involvement of townsfolk, but its appeal to Bryars may also lie in the way that hyper-ventilated Quiquendone sinks into catastrophe as imperceptibly as the great liner in his tape and ensemble piece The Sinking of the Titanic (1969-97) is engulfed by the ocean (to a gurgling of hymn-tunes). And it is difficult not to see an invitation to a composer noted for lugubrious tempi in Verne's evocation of Quiquendone's opera theatre, where no more than two acts of an opera were ever got through in an evening, and "composers would never have recognised their own works, so entirely changed were the 'movements' of the music".

Such sea-change is at the heart of Bryars' idiom. Though his music is all too plainly built from tonal chords, they always sound subtly unfamiliar as though reverberating under water, and the rhythmic repetitions of his admittedly gentle minimalist manner rarely break free from a sort of sea-swell engulfing the texture. The duos, trios and other standard forms abundant in this score - there is a fully-fledged if dreamily lethargic love-duet, with catchy jazz obbligato for double bass (Bryars' own instrument); a sonorous "council chamber" trio for low male voices; a lovers' high-voice ensemble parodying early music to an accompaniment of glittering harmonics - all come touched with the dead-pan irony that is Bryars' peculiar note and apt enough here; while the choruses have a suspended, other-worldly quality right for the phlegmatic Flemings.

In a sense, Bryars has his operatic cake and regurgitates it. His gambits work on the stage even as their element of glacial stylisation threatens to sink the whole dramatic enterprise. His vocal lines are shapely and strong, his orchestral writing often lyrical too, but despite some parallels, this is not the world of Verdi, Janacek, Britten; and though the first act rises to a traditional operatic climax, it is achieved by throwing "opera" - in the form of the riotous audience behaviour at Les Huguenots, complete with Meyerbeer quotation - back in the audience's face. In this production by Canadian film-director Atom Egoyan the spotlight that I took to signify the oxygen flow is trained on us at the start of the interval.

We return, suitably stimulated, to find the Flemings inflamed by erotic passion and their world turned upside down. Whereas the earlier scenes were done with softly swaying choreography and characters who, having emerged from the opening wedding-cake tableau, moved in great white crinolines (designed by Sandy Powell) like chess pieces across the stage, now the people are half-stripped and frantically coupling, enmeshed in the wires of a newly automated whipped cream industry. The second act, at 40 minutes, is half the length of the first for obvious reasons, and the macro-contrasts are well expressed in a production, attractively designed by Michael Levine, somewhat darkly lit by Rick Fisher, that makes the most of such simple means as rope, ladders and falling glitter. Lighting gear nicely serves as the mad scientist's apparatus. There are no mandatory fascists in leather coats, no Mengeles or Husseins to underscore any allegory.

Only the concluding scene, which diverges from the novella and possibly the libretto (it depends on the meaning of a final "Ah!"), moves in the direction of generic modern opera production. One of the love-duettists, Frantz (well taken by countertenor David James) appears to have been killed in the gas explosion (rather muffled in this staging) that puts paid to Ox's scheme; and the other, Suzel (the splendid Valdine Anderson), sings what is in effect a Liebestod over him. Though inertia returns to Quiquendone, in the operatic version life is never going to be the same: we are presented with a landscape of bleak recrimination tinged by a hope of renewal. In the story no one dies, everything is as before, and though the staged denouement has a poetic power, part of me wished that the opera, like the satire, might simply end with a bang and a laugh. The cast, led by clarion tenor Bonaventura Bottone, diabolical as Ox, is altogether fine, though verbal clarity comes and goes in curious phases. James Holmes conducts impressively.

© Paul Driver 1998