And now for something completely different

Classical Music

CRITICS and censors work within the values of their own times, destined to be proved wrong, and in that respect there's not a lot to choose between them. But the critic (may I say in self-defence) is just a temporary assailant, bruising something that already lives and will live on if it's really of worth. The censor is an abortionist who nips life in the bud. And there are few more damning indictments of his trade than the censorial burdens which forced Verdi to turn Stiffelio into Aroldo: two versions of the same opera which, fascinatingly, have been playing side by side at Covent Garden as part of its long-running Verdi Festival.

At heart they share a common story of a noble-minded tenor who, after some prevarication, forgives his wife's infidelity. But in Stiffelio he is a contemporary Lutheran clergyman who does his forgiving in the context of a church service - all of which offended the Catholic sensibilities of the Italian theatre authorities. In Aroldo he becomes Harold, an English medieval crusader with a friend called Brian (Briano), and the act of forgiveness takes place more discreetly, if bizarrely, on the shores of Loch Lomond (aka "il Lago Loomond") to which Harold has inexplicably retired as a hermit. In other words a viable, credible, prescient example of verismo opera has been bowdlerised into the safe absurdity of a pseudo-historical romp that reads like Monty Python with music.

The tragedy is that, once the damage had been done, both pieces fell from repertory. But with the recent growth of interest in the "unknown" Verdi, Stiffelio has made it on to disc (Philips, with Carreras) and on to the stage: I mentioned Covent Garden's production on this page last week. Aroldo has made slower progress (although there is a recording, on Sony with a best-forgotten tenor but Caballe as the errant wife) and the Garden has only been running concert performances. But what performances! Carlo Rizzi conducted, juggling the baton between left and right hands as is his disconcerting habit, but with the authority and vital insight of a true, instinctive Verdian. His principal soloists were outstanding, with the American soprano Kallen Esperian in handsomely capacious voice, and Dennis O'Neill on far better form in concert than he ever seems to be tottering about the stage in built-up heels. The lesser soloists were drawn from the Stiffelio cast, singing their Aroldo counterparts (they wouldn't have had too much extra music to learn because it's largely the same). But Aroldo is generally more lyrical, less heroic, and with some very striking orchestral effects - not least for that quick getaway to Scotland in the last act, which proves an excuse for some Highland camp (bagpipe music and a hunting chorus) and a storm scene that flexes Verdi's muscles in preparation for Rigoletto. It was like a sauna in the Opera House on Wednesday, and probably no coincidence (in the interests of Lord Gowrie's shirts) that pounds 50m worth of redevelopment funding was confirmed the next day. Roll on air-conditioning. But roll on more projects like Aroldo, too. For the House to justify that level of handout, it must be seen to be looking beyond its established audience and established way of working. Concert opera at cheaper prices (without any com- promise in quality) is a start.

Tchaikovsky also had censorship problems: which is why, in Queen of Spades, the curtain falls as the Tsaritsa arrives for the ball scene (the portrayal of royal personages on stage was a sensitive matter in Imperial Russia). Graham Vick's 1992 production now in revival at Glyndebourne handles the moment impeccably, with mounting expectation: the cast gather at the foot of a grand staircase to greet a lady whom we never actually see. It sends the audience off to their picnics a scene later with an oddly satisfying sense of being cheated; and it contributes to the surrealism of a production that Vick and his designer, Richard Hudson, conceive as a dance of death. Skel- etons pop literally out of every cupboard, and the hand of fate in varying manifestations sweeps the principal protagonists towards their end.

None of this has quite the consummate refinement of Vick's Glyndebourne Onegin, but it does have the obsessive, driven energy the piece demands. The shame is that Andrew Davis is no longer in the pit to supply a corresponding musical momentum. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky does it this time and is, I suppose, a catch for Glyndebourne as a repository of native understanding - but he doesn't work particularly hard to bring the score to life. Nor does he have Nancy Gustafson, who triumphed as Lisa in 1992. She was due to have sung again, but took ill and has been replaced by Susan Bullock: a stodgier voice doing its best but not in the same class. The tenor, as before, is Yuri Masurin: problematic in the way he sustains notes with a sour, vibrato-less and dangerously off-pitch tone before they blossom, but exciting and direct and right for the demented, blinkered passion of the role.

The cast of Midsummer Opera's Partenope at the Lyric, Hammersmith, could have done with some of his qualities. I say this reluctantly, knowing Midsummer Opera to be an enterprising company that normally plays in a garden in Ealing and deserves encouragement. But with singers of repute (Marilyn Hill Smith, Ian Caddy) and an Arts Council grant it could/ should do better than this. Of course the coloratura writing in Partenope is difficult; and, in fairness, there was some impressively articulated singing from the countertenor Nicholas Clapton in his Act II fury aria. But it's also a joyous piece, designed by Handel to woo back the audience he had lost to English ballad opera, and accordingly bright with melody - as well as the buzz of an adorably fatuous plot that parodies the transvestite, gender-bent conventions of 18th-century Italian lyric theatre. Partenope, Queen of Naples, is surrounded by suitors: one a castrato, one either a castrato or a woman in trousers, and another a woman who, within the terms of the plot, is disguised as a man until challenged to fight a duel stripped to the waist. You get the point ... and so, undoubtedly, does Midsummer Opera, which has the nice idea of playing the whole thing as 1930s Noel Coward camp, set in a nightclub. But the idea isn't developed and the performances are limited. It's a pity, because this rare piece is a gift for the right ensemble, and it doesn't needn't extravagant resources. Opera Theatre Company of Dublin would be perfect. Please note.

'Queen of Spades': Glyndebourne (01273 812321), continues Thurs.

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