24 APRIL 1964, Page 20

Slap in the Face

All things considered, then, the Sadler's Wells management had a good prima-facie case for doing Volpone on their own account. Conducted by Leon Lovett, directed by Michael Geliot and designed by Ralph Koltai, their production is admirably cast and solidly prepared. With what box office results? The house on the opening night was worth £140 out of a possible £908, and bookings for the remaining three perform- ances stood at £70 out of a possible £2,940.

There is no denying that the mass of people who adore their Mozart, Verdi and Puccini run a mile at the mere mention of 'modern' opera. They do this for a good reason. So many 'modern' operas have turned out to be tuneless, experimental duds. This objection does not, how- ever, apply to Vo1pone. Far from being experi- mental, it adroitly uses established twentieth- century musical idioms. Tonalities are well defined, although pungently mixed at times. The score is easy going for anybody who has got as far as, say, Petrushka.

Some critics spot affinities with the later Stravinsky. On flipping through the vocal score I don't see much in this. The affinity which impresses me is with certain aspects of light, even 'pop,' music. Take Volpone's racy—and pre-eminently whistleable—seduction number, 'Come Celia, let us prove.' This and other fetch-

ing things suggest that, on one side of him, at any rate, Mr. Burt is a splendid musical enter- tainer of the Malcolm Arnold school.

I cannot say there are many other vocal tunes, or any at all, which 'click' on first or second hearing with the same infallibility. Indeed, when it comes to tune-spotting the best thing is to keep your ears op the orchestra. Here they abound, leading a gay, comely life of their own, with the vocal lines, or some of them, overlaid or screwed on in a manner that strikes me as a bit arbitrary.

So much for what I have called the 'pop' side of Mr. Burt. There is another side that goes higher and deeper. In the last scene before the epilogue, where Volpone, his creatures and his victims come before the magistrates, a massive ensemble develops. The bass line throbs thren- odically. Over this the soprano and baritone leads float in lament. The judges and chorus of onlookers add harmonic weight and filling. At the same time Volpone and his hermaphrodite, out on the apron, exchange intrigue patter whose rhythm sparks off imitative flights of minor thirds in the woodwind.

Not only has this episode notable scale and span, as well as beauty; it is also momentous; situation, words and scene abet the music, and are abetted by it, in such a way as to produce authentic operatic current and voltage. Not all. Mr. Burt's scenes come off as clinchingly. That is partly because of Jonson's tortuous tale and - motivation. At one point Volpone (sung sten- torianly and with mastery by John Holmes) collapsed on his bed in helpless laughter at his own mischief, exclaiming 'I shall burst—let out my sides!' From the audience not a giggle. Some situations and complications are hard to put over in the opera house. The fact remains that Mr. Burt has the root of the matter in him. Volpone shows him to be a man of the theatre as well as a talented musician. His £140 first night was an unwarranted slap in the face.