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Illuminations (Snape Maltings)

The 69th Aldeburgh Festival opens with an imaginative fusion of circus and music

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sarah Tynan in Illuminations (Aldeburgh Festival)
© Mark Allen

There's no opera production as such at this year's Aldeburgh Festival, but as a thrilling night of music theatre this classics-circus hybrid is a reasonable trade-off. Taking his cue from Benjamin Britten's setting of French poet Arthur Rimbaud's cryptic verse carnival, Les Illuminations, director Struan Leslie has concocted an 80-minute entertainment that showcases the Aurora Orchestra and nine acrobats.

Make that ten, since soprano Sarah Tynan is required to negotiate Britten's magical song cycle while jumping through hoops—or, more accurately, being raised up to the rafters on one with no apparent means of support as she leads us "...dans l'affection et le bruit neufs" (‘towards new loves and new sounds').

Before Tynan delivers her fabulously idiomatic and lyrical account of Les Illuminations, though, she lies abed for an hour and dreams the visions we see while a selection of classical masterpieces accompany the jugglers and gyrators. The high point of this extended prelude is the sleeper's erotic reverie when a bungee trapeze hovers above her head and a voluptuous upside-down figure enfolds her in interlacing arms.

If the entertainment value is high, the sense of a missed opportunity nags away as circus tropes come and go. Hand balancing, hat juggling and corde lisse alternate with graceful acrobatics and dance-like interludes in a Ballet Rimbaud of familiar turns, but the sense of a dream play is not always evident. Designer Gary McCann's surreal set, comprising middle-class 1940s furniture piled into a cityscape of skyscrapers ("Ce sont les villes!"), serves as a backdrop to bright performances that fail to exploit dim lighting by Chris Davey in which the titular illumination is at a premium. Late on, Leslie introduces a silver-clad masked gymnast who's a lot more intriguing than a roomful of lycra. If that style had been developed, this could have been a mesmerising evening.

Sarah Tynan in Illuminations (Aldeburgh Festival)
© Mark Allen

As it is, it's the music that carries the show. Nicholas Collon and the virtuosic young Aurora Orchestra never cease to impress with their enterprising performances, and everything here from Britten's Young Apollo (piano soloist John Reid) to John Adams's Shaker Loops is rousing. Richard Tognetti's subtle arrangment of Debussy's String Quartet is a highlight: the musicians on upper strings play standing up and the Andantino third movement is left in its original state for four solo instruments. It can be hard to focus on the entertainment when the orchestra delivers in such style.

Then there's Sarah Tynan's 25 minutes of pure-toned perfection in the cycle – the best account of Les Illuminations I've heard since Felicity Lott (although she, as I recall, remained earthbound). Tynan sings in impeccable French, can waft a gown and sing up a storm, and her physical derring-do is above and beyond the call of duty. What a performance.

Opera returns to the Aldeburgh Festival next year, the 50th anniversary of the Snape Maltings concert hall, with what looks set to be a landmark production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with Iestyn Davies as Oberon. While we wait, here's some early magic courtesy of Tynan and Collon and a sprinkling of fairy dust.

There are further performances of Illuminations on 12 and 13 June.