Michael Berkeley

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Michael Berkeley
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: Baa Baa Black Sheep
PERFORMER: Opera North Chorus, English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel
Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera, Ka – the Jungle Book is back, only without that Disney ‘magic’. It’s a great idea on paper, intercutting Kipling’s animal adventures with his own account of his wretched English childhood, cast out from the parental warmth of his Indian home upon the chilly mercies of a dysfunctional foster family in Victorian Southsea. Like a cross between The Cunning Little Vixen, with its human/animal counterparts, and The Turn of the Screw, only with the polarity between governess and children reversed, David Malouf’s libretto neatly co-opts Mowgli’s animal rites of passage. In doing so he supplies the missing details of the fantasy life in which Kipling’s boyish alter-ego Punch seeks refuge from physical and emotional abuse, and triumphs, in imagination, over the hateful Aunty Rosa and her horrid son Harry (aka the tiger Shere Khan). Sadly, fantasy is where Berkeley scores lowest: struggling against an orchestral palette eclectic to the point of anonymity, and vocal lines awash with false stresses and misplaced emphases, his human characters are mere caricatures, their animal equivalents just plain dull; choruses are of the rent-a-chord kind, the few intended motifs utterly unmemorable; a potentially magical moment like Mowgli’s moonlit dance with Grey Wolf is served up to schmaltzy Hollywood strings straight out of The Great Waltz; while Berkeley proves incapable even of marking the crucial distinction between Punch’s two worlds – reality and imagination, Southsea and the Indian jungle. The latter is feebly characterised by hints of Indonesian gamelan – an aural misprint, perhaps? Come back Disney, all is forgiven. Mark Pappenheim