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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Lloyd Webber's latest - a ghost of an opera

By Norman Lebrecht / September 24, 2004

I am beginning to lose faith in Andrew Lloyd Webber. In 1989, after Aspects of Love, he announced on TV that he was giving up musicals to make movies. Two years later, elevated to the Tory benches in the House of Lords, he declared that he would leave the country if Tony Blair put up taxes.

Well, Lloyd Webber is still with us and last week he opened The Woman in White, his fourth musical since retirement. This one, he told media previewers, would be his most operatic. The ambition was, for once, exposed: this lord of the mass-market musical longs to enter a superior hall of fame.

I went to see the show on its fourth night after most reviewers’ thumbs pointed vertically downwards. My purpose was to test the operatic premise of the piece, and it was a serious purpose. I play music criticism by the baseball rule of three strikes and you’re out. If Andrew Lloyd Webber was about to default on his third public pledge in 15 years, having failed to give up and get out, I would not allow him another nanosecond of my professional time.

Much has been analysed, and wildly alleged, about Lloyd Webber’s debt to opera. The influence of Puccini, for instance, is unmissable from Jesus Christ Superstar onwards. Even if one dismisses rumours, bilaterally denied, of a financial settlement to the Puccini estate for a stretch of Aspects that resembles an aria from Fanciulla del West, the techniques of Puccini proliferate in the works of Lloyd Webber.

In both composers, the set piece arias literally stop the show, freezing the action while a singer dispenses emotion. The instrumentation is simple, often one-line. Harmony and counterpoint are conspicuous by their virtual elimination. This does not make Puccini and Lloyd Webber good or badcomposers. It just makes them what they are: the most bankable arousers of audience reaction. Audiences erupt to their arias because there is nothing else going on in the score to provoke more complicated sentiments and delay an instinctual response. Absence of clutter is the key to their success.

Lloyd Webber, like Puccini, is seldom as simple as he sounds. He has considerable musical erudition, the fruit of his upbringing in the household of an unrecognised composer and of his education, at Westminster School, in the shadow of a great Cathedral. The Requiem he wrote in his father’s memory richly references Faure, Tallis, Purcell, Verdi, Mussorgsky, Dvorak and Britten. Perhaps the most telling use of classical resources was in Evita, where the lyricism of Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss underscored the dubious beatification of a dictator’s dying moll. *The genius lay in the application of a half-familiar soundworld to a novel situation, a synthesis that Lloyd Webber perfected in a string of musicals that became the backdrop to people's lives in most major cities on earth. It is, without irony, an astonishing achievement.

Evita was no opera, any more than the rest of Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre. The singing was amplified, the rhythms syncopated and the plot one-dimensional. At no time was an audience challenged to question a moral condundrum, or inspired to see the world through different eyes.

After Phantom of the Opera, a non-opera still playing on the Haymarket in its 18th year, the composer’s compass went askew. Aspects, Sunset Boulevard (1993), Whistle Down the Wind (1997) and The Beautiful Game (2000) fell short of his usual runs. Doubters muttered that if Lloyd Webber could not make a hit of a musical about football, the world’s most popular spectator sport, he must surely have lost the midas touch.

The Woman in White is his combative response. It announces itself in many ways as the most British of his works, not to say the most Brittenish. The opening bars resonate of Aldeburgh. The repeated cadence of ‘Sir Percival Clyde’ (name of the stage villain) mirrors, both tonally and rhythmically,the cries of ‘Peter Grimes, Peter Grimes!’ that punctuate the masterpiece which, in 1945, became the first British opera in 250 years to achieve global acclaim.

Benjamin Britten’s ghost graces the finest ensemble moments in the musical – an arrestingly baleful setting of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ and a pair of village dances that call up memories of Albert Herring. This may be unwitting on Lloyd Webber’s part, and I may be underestimating the input of his resourceful director, Trevor Nunn, who was responsible for the most chokingly claustrophobic Grimes ever seen in this country, at Glynderbourne.

But if Lloyd Webber took Britten as his role model, he might have chosen a story more immediate than Wilkie Collins’s bleak Victorian thriller, a tale whose lone contact with modern Britain is the unreliability of its rail services. Britten, even in 18th century Grimes, reflected the here and now.

There are further operatic credentials to this otherwise formulaic musical. It appears to be through-composed, which is to say that its themes flow coherently one from another, start to finish. That is no small feat, unusual in a stage musical. Lloyd Webber credits David Cullen, his collaborator since Cats, for ‘orchestrations’. Not knowing which of them wrote what, I can only report that the pit contained two cellos, one double-bass, solo woodwind, brass and timpani. Three keyboards filled out the rest, imitating in their unsubtle way the sound of missing instruments.

Why no violins and violas? A string quartet, available at £300 a night, might have enahnced the emotional impact. Whether because the voices were amplified or because they were isolated – there are only a pair of brief duets, nothing approaching the sensational sextets of Mozart and Kurt Weill – the music scarcely involves us in the fate of these flimsy characters.

Where, in Grimes, one has an urge to stand up in the stalls and yell, ‘stop him! can’t you see a child’s going to die? ’ here the heroine’s death and resurrection elicits mere shrugs. As an opera, The Woman in White fails todeliver emotional or intellectual satisfaction. As a musical, it works - just about.

I am prepared to believe in the sincerity of Lloyd Webber’s desire to write an opera. He has the means, and he may have the imagination. But until he is prepared to face up to emotion, naked of all modern aids and amplification, vulnerably alone with his own orchestration, he (and we) will never know. And maybe that's for the best.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001