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Illuminations review at Aldeburgh Festival – ‘quirky and revealing’

Sarah Tynan in Illuminations at Aldeburgh Festival. Photo: Mark Allan Sarah Tynan in Illuminations at Aldeburgh Festival. Photo: Mark Allan
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A bold launch to this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, this show adds an extra dimension to Britten’s song-cycle Les illuminations – precocious settings of surreal texts by Arthur Rimbaud – by staging it with a small circus troupe. The song-cycle appears at the end of a sequence of staged instrumental pieces by Debussy, John Adams and Britten, during which soprano Sarah Tynan lies in a bed suspended atop a wardrobe. Tynan’s nocturnal fantasies are animated by jugglers and acrobatics on aerial hoops, trapezes and fabrics, before she rises (perhaps somnambulant) to voice her rabid imaginings in the song-cycle. The opening line – “I alone have the key to this wild parade” – is one of many that validate this kind of staging.

Gary McCann’s set comprises a cityscape of stacked wardrobes and drawers, creating perfect clambering matter for performers who define and inhabit a vertical plane. With no real narrative component across the pieces, the circus element occasionally loses impetus. But there are individual set pieces of sorts that provide pacing: a sensual male-female duet on straps in Debussy’s String Quartet; a solo female entwining herself in aerial silks, at first fitfully but then with masterly grace, in Britten’s rarely heard Reveille for violin and piano; and a double cloud swing acting as giant swinging pendulums to a movement from John Adams’ Shaker Loops.

The playing of the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon matches the brilliance of the performers and Sarah Tynan’s combination of clean, vibrant tone and her willingness to end Les illuminations perched within a stratospheric hoop is breathtaking. With evocations of night-time and dreams elsewhere in Britten’s works, this treatment is surely one of which he would have approved.

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Quirky and revealing take on Britten (and others) with trapezes