With a movement so slow

June 26, 1998

DR OX'S EXPERIMENT. By Gavin Bryars Coliseum.

Jules Verne's Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox, which appeared in 1874, soon after Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours, is not one of his adventure stories but an anecdote, pendant to the "oxygen" episode in Autour de la lune. Dr Ox, a modern Dionysus, comes to a quiet Flemish town, offers to install gas lighting, lays the pipes but not the burners, and feeds pure oxygen through them, thereby speeding up the tempo of life in sleepy Quiquendone and transforming the mild temper of its inhabitants into hot passions. The tale is told in comic caricature: Quiquendonians favour ten-year engagements; the town council debates an infringement of grazing rights, by a cow from a neighbouring town, that took place two centuries ago but has never been settled. The pulse rate in Quinquendone is fifty. At its opera house, works are spread over several evenings, act by act, in weekly episodes: demisemiquavers are treated as semibreves, and Figaro's "Largo al factotum" takes fifty-eight minutes to sing - "when the actor is particularly enthusiastic".

Verne began his career as the secretary of the Theatre Lyrique and a librettist of comic operas by Aristide Hignard (a composer overlooked by Grove but recurrent in chronicles of the time). There are opera-comique scenes in Verne's Docteur Ox. One is a performance of Act Four of Les Huguenots under the influence of the doctor's gas: the solemn, Benediction des poignards becomes jaunty; Raoul's "Danger se presse" sounds like "one of those rapid airs that have made Offenbach famous"; "Tu l'as dit", Meyerbeer's soaring andante amoroso (one of his high inventions, inspiration for Verdi in the final duet of Aida), "becomes a real vivace furioso". The long act, whizzed through in eighteen minutes, provokes a riot. Another ensemble is an "oxygenated" ball at which the Freischuetz waltz, "so German, and with a movement so slow", becomes "an insensate whirlwind". Yet another scene suggests musical treatment: two town councillors climb the church tower, filled with oxygen-fired fury as they start the ascent, mild and mellifluous once they're above the influence of the gas, then crackling again when they descend into its aura.

Offenbach had a huge hit in 1875 with his Verne-based space spectacular, Le Voyage dans le lune, at the Gaite. His Docteur Ox, at the Varietes two years later, was less successful but not a flop. This opera-bouffe, in three acts and six scenes (libretto by A. Mortier and P. H. Gille), was planned as a vehicle for, and dedicated to, the composer's latest leading lady, Anna Judic. Verne's tale has no leading lady, and so the team, professionally adept, invented one. To Quiquendone come not only Dr Ox but also a Gypsy troupe led by Prascovia, a sparky heroine who has one lively number after another; in Dr Ox she recognizes a figure from her past, and upbraids him as "a shop-soiled Don Giovanni". She wheedles the key of his gas-valve from his assistant, and from the doctor himself a necessary password: "Thesaurochrysoni chochrysid s" becomes the refrain of their catchy duet. And - so far as one can guess from a vocal score without the spoken dialogue, with only a laconic "on parle" over the melodramas - she precipitates the explosion that ends Dr Ox's experiment.

The rest of Verne's tale is there, more or less - sluggish burghers whiffed into animation - and the music is animated even in the numbers that make fun of Flemish sluggishness. Offenbach, rather surprisingly, omitted both the high-speed Huguenots parody and the whipped-up ball scene. But the "Mozart of the Boulevards" was a composer who needed no gaseous stimulus to write heady strains. Verve, invention, sureness and delicacy of musical touch never failed him (except, perhaps, when at the end of his life he slogged earnestly over Hoffmann, the least buoyant of his operas). Le Docteur Ox has a high-spirited but evidently silly plot; it can't be ranked with La Belle Hel ne or Barbe-Bleue. But the score, as I sat reading it in the British Library, sparkled and sang. With, say, Sally Burgess as Prascovia, it could surely be a Coliseum hit.

At the Coliseum, Dr Ox's Experiment, by Gavin Bryars, is a work of very different complexion - earnest, lugubrious and slow. Verne himself, we're told, thought Offenbach's opera-bouffe insufficiently lively. Heaven knows what he would have made of Bryars's opera, which moves at a snail's pace and provides perhaps the dullest evening at the opera that I've ever encountered. Bryars is hardly a dramatic composer. His first opera, Medea (1984), was created in collaboration with Robert Wilson, a practitioner of stage stasis. In Dr Ox, he essays a representation in music of Quiquendone's slow life. Verne's prose moves with energy even while he tells of slowness, but much of Bryars's music moves at crotchet-46, a tempo in which the semibreves tied to minims take nearly eight seconds to sing. Try singing anything more elaborate than "Kyrie" while sustaining individual syllables for up to eight seconds: it's hard to make the words, let alone the sentences, comprehensible. Dr Ox's Experiment begins with a long, slow, apparently wordless chorus, an agreeable wash of sound - common chords smudged by added notes, and gradually shifting - that goes on and on, and on, for perhaps ten minutes. Ox and his assistant, Yg ne, are supposed to be more animated, to provide contrast. But when Blake Morrison, Bryars's librettist, essays a Gilbertian patter song for Ox - Let's magnetize the manganese with magnified magenta, And amalgamate the acetates with anastigmatic lenses, Then oxidate the oxalate with oxyacetylene blowpipe - Bryars sets it slowly, too, to a steady crotchet-76 syllable beat. The opera drones on, slowly, with scarcely a trace of animated, communicative vocal gesture. In its stolid way, it is truer to Verne than Offenbach was: the libretto does raise questions about the dubious benefits of modern technology, and the music gives plenty of time to those not asleep to ponder them. The piece ends with a long, slow, maundering mezzo solo - Though something strange has passed, everything's back to normal . . .

everything's hunky-dory - followed by a longer, slow, maundering soprano solo, addressed in the score by a girl to her beloved ("We have found our old pulse again") but in the ENO production - with drastic change to the composer's original "message" - addressed to a corpse, casualty of the experiment. Bryars keeps the Huguenots episode, but he quotes and parodies Meyerbeer without love and understanding. "Tu l'as dit" rings out for just a moment, as the best tune of the evening; for no apparent reason, the Flemish chorus renders the repeated "Frappons" in Italian translation, as "Feriam". He keeps the tower ascent but makes little of its A-B-A form; infusions of oxygen scarcely disturb the deadly slow pace of the music. On the plus side? Decent scoring, an ear for sonorities, long drifts of slow-moving mildly attractive music enlivened with plinks and plonks.

A sluggish, colourless production was no help. Michael Levine's set, a bare, black stage with three step-ladders, proves an acoustic disaster. Sandy Powell's costumes for the nineteenth-century burghers are voluminous robes of Quentine Matsys cut, uniformly rendered in quilted white. Rick Fisher's lighting was dim. Atom Egoyan's staging kept the performers, all but Dr Ox, upstage behind a deadening gauze; he leadenly followed the score by posing them there in stasis or an occasional slow sarabande; he made nonsense of the plot by sending the oxygen-excited Quiquendone cohorts off to battle in a slow, measured march.

Riccardo Simonetti sang decently, as Yg ne, and managed to create a character. Della Jones, the mezzo, sang, shall we say, incisively (and with old-pro aplomb she advanced and gently drew into the spotlight the soprano who had embarked on the long, long finale unlit). Bonaventura Bottone pushed out the title role in strenuous, unattractive Spieltenor timbres. Valdine Anderson and Anna-Clare Monk, the sopranos, their countertenor swains David James and Ryland Angel, and the town councillors, Nicholas Folwell, Mark Richardson, and Dean Robinson, three basses, made what they could of the doggedly deliberate music. James Holmes conducted.

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