But should it cost £1.78 a minute?

Classical Music

THE FOYER cleared unusually fast when they rang the bell for Un Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden on Thursday, and with seats at £267 in the grand tier it was understandable. At roughly £1.78 per minute of occupancy you need to get your money's worth. But did you? The reason for these stratospheric prices was, of course, Luciano Pavarotti, who doesn't make a habit of singing in impoverished houses like the Garden. In the Sixties and Seventies it was different: he was cheaper. But during the Eighties his visits tailed off (there was a famous falling-out with the management), and this Ballo was his first appearance here since 1992. So, inevitably, there was a sense of occasion about it all.

But frankly, if you offered me the Queen doing a can-can at £267 I'd think twice about it; and as Pavarotti is an auditory rather than visual experience, I'd rather spend a tenth of that amount to hear him (in younger and better voice) on the Decca recording of Ballo under Solti. On stage at the Garden he does nothing worth watching - unless you thrill to the prospect of an overweight man walking, sitting and occasionally raising his left hand. The performance has none of the impetuous swagger he once brought to the role (if you recall him doing it here in 1981). And in any case, it's a dull old production (originally Otto Schenk, passed on to other hands) which has outlived its time.

In fairness, though, it must be said that Pavarotti is in good shape. He's slimmed down, with the remaining bulk hidden in a sort of toga that bears no relation to what anybody else on stage is wearing but does the trick. As for the voice, it hasn't the glistening top-note shine of old, and he uses it indulgently, now, with erratic speeds and a random tendency to reduce the power to not-always-effective mezza voces. But it still has an outstanding clarity and projection. He can still sing everyone else off the stage. And that's actually a problem when the stage is (supposedly) shared by a fine, incisive soprano like Deborah Voigt making her Royal Opera dbut as Amelia. In almost any other circumstance this would have been her night. Beside Pavarotti she was eclipsed; as was Florence Quivar's alluring Arvidson, Giorgio Zancanaro's forceful if dry Anckarstrom, and some telling conducting from Edward Downes. But then, they weren't what the grand tier were paying £267 to hear.

Peter Grimes at Covent Garden is a frustating experience: superbly sung but miserably conducted and no great credit to the piece in its 50th-anniversary year. It was on 7 June 1945 that Grimes opened at Sadler's Wells and re- established English opera on the world stage after centuries in limbo since Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Of course, English operas were written during that time - especially after 1900 - and devotees of Delius, Vaughan Williams, Rutland Boughton, Ethel Smyth et al will doubtless stand up and defend them. But there was nothing that attracted international attention and survived in repertory. Not until Grimes, which in my book stands comparison with any theatre score you'd care to name.

There was a time when I'd have heaped comparable praise on Elijah Moshinsky's production, which has been doing good service at the Garden since 1975. But it's developed age spots: patches where the concentration and intensity evaporate. There's still a striking sense of detail in the individual performances, especially from Eric Garrett's Swallow and Claire Powell's Aunty who empower the text with beautifully observed minutiae of business. But then there are whole chunks of staging that fail to register at all, like Grimes's entry in the pub scene (badly lit), the chorus movement at the dance, and Grimes's exit down the cliff (always a hard thing to bring off, squeezed as it is into the very ending of the scene, but done here with peculiar indifference).

The real problem, though, is the conductor: a Spaniard, Arturo Tamayo, who replaces the advertised Edward Downes and has no sense of command - with the result that everything proceeds at snail's pace, simmering but never to the point of boil. I spent the whole performance itching to stand up and shout "Faster!" And if I had, there'd probably have been support from the stage as the cast struggled to fill out the yawning time-spans Sgr Tamayo allowed to accumulate.

But what a cast! Josephine Barstow's rather elderly Ellen has authority and knows how to make the "Embroidery Aria" (Britten's beautiful but intrusive equivalent to the "Overcoat Aria" in La Bohme) sound vaguely necessary. Ben Heppner is probably the finest voice to be heard singing Grimes on a regular basis: strong and bell-like, in the sock-it-to-the- gallery helden school of Jon Vickers rather than the manic Peter Pears- to-Philip Langridge line (I just wish he didn't look so cuddly). And Bryn Terfel is magnificent as Balstrode: easily the best I've ever heard or seen and an electrifying presence on the stage.

There's no one of that calibre in ENO's revival of Cos fan tutte, but it's a pleasing cast - largely new - and with a mezzo of real potential in Sara Fulgoni: an in-the-throat voice with a tight and rather too pronounced vibrato, but of youthful quality and charm. As for the staging, Nicolette Molnar's idea of recreating a perky 1950s sit-com was cute the first time round but thin; and now it's looking downright cheap. She has some sharp ideas, especially the Thelma & Louise conclusion (Exit women, stage right) which is funny and (I think) original. But the tone of the production is somehow not up to a national house, or a large stage. It would suit a small-scale touring company better. And in any event, it doesn't show much sign of inner resource: the determining humanity by which all Mozart opera - even Cos - lives.

Michael Tilson Thomas doesn't leave the LSO until July, but the big event of his last months as chief conductor of the orchestra was the Mahler 8 at the Albert Hall last Sunday. It brought to an end the outstanding Mahler cycle he has been running on home ground at the Barbican; and the decision to relocate this final concert across London to larger premises was justified not only by the scale of the performance (vast) but by the audience turn-out (virtually a full house).

Tilson Thomas was a protg of Bernstein who, famously, recreated Mahler in his own image and no doubt passed on a few methodological tips. But the Mahler of this series has been distinctively fresh and vigorous - not so steeped in tears as Bernstein's - and the most astonishing thing about No 8 was the speed of Part I: an exhilarating, driven pace that raised the spirits at the sacrifice of weight and emphasis. Too great a cost, I think. But Part II was a true, unqualified success: the LSO on peak form, with some glorious soloists led by Alessandra Marc whose firm, precise tone in extreme high registers was marvellous to behold. More memorable, even, than her dress: a devastating Barbie doll creation for the fuller figure. Useful if you find yourself on stage with Pavarotti.

`Un Ballo in Maschera' continues Tues & Fri, `Peter Grimes' continues Wed & Sat: 0171 304 4000. `Cos fan tutte' continues Fri: 0171 632 8300.

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