Arts

Music: Smoke-black humour stokes arsonist play

In Max Frisch’s 1950s play Biedermann und die Brandstifter, two dodgy characters – a wrestler and a waiter – invade the home of a weak-willed man who tries to salvage the situation by making them welcome. In the renamed Biedermann and the Arsonists at Sadler’s Wells, they turn out to be arsonists and burn his house down – earning condemnation, as you’d think. However, the play is on their side, as they’re more engagingly presented than their victim.

A morality tale without a moral, Biedermann has since been read in varying ways: not least as a tirade against mid 20th-century appeasement of tyrannical regimes. And in its new life as an opera, it could perhaps have been corralled into the cause of bombing Syria – except that it was staged with such surreal exuberance it was hard to take it as anything but farce-like entertainment.

A funny, fast-paced and slightly overwhelming pleasure, Biedermann and the Arsonists has a score by the Austrian composer Šimon Voseček. It has nothing memorable to say as music, but is functionally effective as a storytelling device. And it came with some magnificent performances – especially from Matthew Hargreaves and Leigh Melrose as the rogues.

But it was the production that stood out: a brilliant piece of hyperactive theatre handled with assurance by a young director called Max Hoehn. His smoke-black humour about setting fire to things was joyously disturbing. Pyrotechnic is the word that comes to mind. No doubt he was the kind of child who played with matches.

Less incendiary, but a beacon in its own way, was the Hampstead Arts Festival: a small but seriously classy fixture in north London with the knack of making every concert special.

This year it flew in several leading artists from mainland Europe, who, despite success with broadcasts and recordings, hadn’t so far given live British recitals. The festival gave premieres of new works. And it also offered home-grown stars such as Ian Bostridge singing Schumann with the pianist Julius Drake.

Bostridge and Drake were billed without exaggeration as “one of the great lieder duos of our time”, and they didn’t disappoint – though Bostridge wasn’t totally on best form. Twice he stopped in mid-song (which I’ve never heard him do before), and his already thin tone faltered at the far ends of his range.

But then, most Bostridge concerts come with challenges to the received idea of vocal beauty. They’re more focused on emotional intensity, living the stories that they tell in song. And the intensity on this occasion was unsparing, harrowing, unsettling – as great art can be – but an experience not to miss.