The Telegraph, 05-07-2015
As culture clashes go, there was something hair raising about the sound of a 100 piece choir stuttering “my-my-my g-g-g-generation” in the background of a lush orchestral version of The Punk & The Godfather, whilst rock legend Pete Townshend gruffly roared in the face of popular tenor Alfie Boe. Here was the music of one generation being boldly smashed into music of another generation altogether. But what do you call a rock opera with the rock taken out?
Pete Townshend wrote Quadrophenia for The Who in 1973, when the notion of rock opera was fresh with high brow potential, before the onslaught of West End rock musicals and lowest common denominator karaoke theatre. It has been through several iterations, as a double album, a film and touring show by The Who, and in a way this new orchestral version brought it back to origins as a complex musical narrative to compare with the classical operas Townshend wanted to emulate.
The big question is how does it fare shorn of the sheer sonic, charismatic and iconic power of one of the world's most dynamic rock bands? There are no electric guitars filling the air with walls of distorting harmonics, no Keith Moon thundering on a drum kit. Instead, the four piece had been replaced by close to two hundred musicians on a crowded stage, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and London Oriana Choir conducted by Robert Ziegler.
The score, by Townshend's girlfriend Rachel Fuller, emphasised nuance and melodic range, with strings and horns casting light on background harmonies, rhythmic undercurrents and returning motifs perhaps lost in the sheer physical blast of the Who's original. It sounds rich and playful, a little bit Leonard Bernstein in its horn driven pulse, a little bit Puccini in its melodic trickery. Lacking something in such unquantifiable areas as guts and groove, it couldn't really hope to match the hypnotic immersion audiences might get from a full on rock show, yet there was immense pleasure to be had in hearing this fantastic music through another prism.
The orchestrations were lush enough to serve as instrumentals, but the vocalists somehow brought a physicality sometimes at odds with the music. Rock star Billy Idol's gruff energy was almost overpowering singing the role of the Ace Face, whilst Phil Daniels (who played confused mod Jimmy in the 70s film) made a crowd pleasing appearance four decades later as Jimmy's dad.
Along with Townshend's cameo, there was a colloquial directness contrasting with Alfie Boes' gorgeous yet airily operatic voice. It was obvious that they belonged to different disciplines but Boe really came into his own on the full blown emotional splendour of Love Reign O'er Me. The Who's Roger Daltrey screamed the original in spiritual torment. Boe turned it into a spine tingling hymn.
The audience was rapturously impressed, with standing ovations all round. But if this vivid reimagining did demonstrate the inherent power of Townshend's original vision, it also left me hankering for the power and personality of his band. It was odd to see so many musicians failing to quite match the kind of force routinely stirred up by a quartet. The future of rock opera surely needs to find a way to include rock in the equation.