Arts: Opera with a twinkle in its eye

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The Independent Culture
AN OPTIMISTIC opera story, at last. I reported a couple of weeks ago on a master-class given by Gundula Janowitz at the European Union Opera, and briefly described the work. It was an extraordinary event, an outgrowth of the triumphantly successful European Union Orchestra, an acknowledgement of the need for aspiring practitioners of the operatic arts to work in supported circumstances - to the highest professional standards, but away from the usual pressure of an international opera house.

There were classes, coaching and recitals for the singers as well as rehearsals for the two operas presented: Eugene Onegin, fully staged, and Beatrice and Benedict, semi-staged.

The spa town of Baden Baden was virtually taken over by a horde of high- spirited young musicians bent on improving their operatic skills, and Baden was very welcoming, despite being the Zimmer frame capital of Europe. By the end of their 10 weeks there, the musicians, it must be admitted, had become rather restless because they are, despite their commitment to this supposedly arcane and elitist art, normal young men and women, looking for a good time when they've finished their arduous labours, and Baden is not quite the place for that, unless you want to risk the Casino's treacherous charms.

It is worth mentioning the normality of the musicians; "classical" music demands no peculiar qualification of temperament or class. These young people have simply been gifted with exceptional ears and strong musical instincts, to the degree that they have felt compelled to follow the exacting disciplines asked of performers. At this level, they proved themselves to be exceptionally talented, vocally or instrumentally; the playing of the orchestra was highly accomplished, brilliant even. But it was more than that: it was alive with enjoyment, audacious and vivacious - it had a twinkle in its eye. The players were in contact with each other, sensing the whole piece, the whole sound world, and interacting like jazz musicians. The players were, in a word, playful, and they were young enough to be able to show their enjoyment physically.

Onegin was splendid, with Rozhdestvensky conducting with a minimum of gesture or intervention, simply unfolding the score with affectionate wisdom. Beatrice and Benedict was as lively as a firecracker. Onegin had played in the vast spaces of the new Festspielhaus - 2,500 seats - now there's a vote of confidence in opera, from a town with a 10th of the population of London.

We performed Beatrice in the exquisite little theatre for which it had been written in 1865, the inaugural production. It's a tuneful, characteristically mercurial piece, featuring a drunken wedding song scored for chorus, trumpets, guitar and clinking glasses which might have come straight from one of Hoffnung's Festival Hall concerts, or the wilder shores of Percy Grainger's imagination.

I doubt whether Berlioz himself, conducting the first performance there, can have made his band zip along quite as fizzily as Yan Pascal Tortelier, who threw the gauntlet down with his opening gesture to the orchestra. They were well up to it, tearing into the overture with a precision and relish that never let up till the last exuberant bars - Tortelier so animated by that point that his baton flew out of his hand, nearly impaling the harpist.

Seated on the stage, the players were able to appreciate the singers' work; they had twinkling eye contact with them, too, and a kind of give- and-take rarely possible in the opera house. The result was that a presentation that looked rather like a poor relation of Onegin drew cheers from the audience and stamping applause, both in Baden, and in Paris a few weeks later, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees.

The pity was that there were so few people of the players' and singers' own age in the audience; this is the real challenge. How on earth do we tell young people that Berlioz, not to mention Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Ades or Birtwistle, has a great deal to say, and that the experience is both joyful and inspiring?

Some of the most remarkable moments of the whole event were to be had in the mornings and afternoons, when the young singer-choristers, or singers of smaller parts in the operas, gave recitals, accompanied and coached by expert and experienced pianists. It is not, I think, unfair on the other many talented performers to single out Jesper Taube (Claudio in Beatrice and Benedict) who, at 11am one morning, climbed the mountain that is Schubert's Schwanengesang with heroic stamina and startling emotional power. Craig Rutenberg, the superb American accompanist, sustained and guided him with almost orchestral amplitude of tone.

In one sense, it was sensational; in another, more important sense, it was the opposite; it was deeply serious work, the outcome of a brilliantly structured programme. Would that there were an equivalent for actors.