Love calls the tune in a world of terror

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AN OPERA about a suicide bomber cell may not sound like most people's idea of a good night out, but Manifest Destiny, a 90-minute piece by composer Keith Burstein, is affecting, potent and, perhaps most importantly of all, packed with melodic invention. Anyone expecting to be browbeaten with the "plink plonks" favoured by all too many contemporary composers is in for a pleasant surprise.

Burstein is a controversial figure in musical circles precisely because of this commitment to tonality in defiance of the musical avant garde, which believes that tunes and harmonies belong in another era. Throughout Burstein demonstrates that melody is neither dead nor even exhausted.

Time and time again in Manifest Destiny - as in the greatest operatic works - tonal resolution and emotional closure come hand-in-hand. Neither can exist without the other. Burstein's musical point repeatedly makes itself.

If that makes Burstein sound a little bit reactionary as a musician, Manifest Destiny makes it clear that he is anything but a conservative politically. This work is a coruscating, scintillating indictment both of suicide bombers and of the forces that drive people to such desperate measures. Predictably, we find President George Bush and his neo-conservative allies in the dock.

The story is fairly simple and relevant. A Jewish composer, Daniel, relies upon his Palestinian lover Leila to provide words for compositions. Distressed by the situation in the Middle East, Leila leaves him and joins a cell of suicide bombers. Another member of the cell falls in love with her and betrays her to prevent her killing herself. She ends up in Guantanamo Bay, where she does commit suicide - not with a bomb or a grand gesture, but alone in her cell, using a piece of thread.

Politics in art has a long history. Verdi never concealed his support for the democratic movements of his time, while Wagner staked out an altogether less liberal world view. Burstein's opera made me most mindful of Michael Tippett's wonderful oratorio A Child of Our Time, for which Tippett too took a single incident - the shooting of a German diplomat by a young Jew - to shine profound light on the human condition itself.

Like so much great art, Manifest Destiny marries the personal with the political, the particular and the universal. Burstein also follows Tippett's lead in using deceptively simple-sounding methods to convey his overwhelming political and moral message.

Unlike Tippett, however, Burstein used the services of a librettist, in this instance Dic Edwards. The libretto seemed at times unmusical, but of greater concern was its occasional lack of political refinement. It is all too easy - but also simply wrong - to equate George Bush with the United States or Ariel Sharon with Israel, when in both those countries there are countless liberal-minded opponents of the prevailing regimes.

Despite the occasional political sledgehammer, however, and the faint whiff of crude anti-Americanism, a simple and humanitarian message shines through unambiguously: that violence begets only violence in a cycle which must be broken as an act of human will; and that love is stronger than hatred, though it can be a close-run thing.

Even if the politics seem questionable at times, it's still worth going just to hear the music. This score is so witty and so accessible that, were it not for the bleak subject matter, Manifest Destiny might almost seem more like a high-end musical than an opera, albeit one elaborated and elevated by such devices as Mahlerian harmonies and rhythmic patterns, a gorgeous waltz, and a cynical tango.

The score is also rendered by a first-class cast of four, including the superb soprano Bernadette Lord and Paul Carey Jones, a deeply resonant bass.

To my ears the musical and dramatic idiom of Manifest Destiny is oddly and unexpectedly reminiscent of another dazzling, dark opera - one written half a century ago by Leonard Bernstein. Trouble in Tahiti too dissects Middle America's tendency to turn in upon itself.

That such a comparison can be made is indicative of the many positive qualities of this brave, touching and timely work.

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