CLASICAL MUSIC / Looking good, sounding great

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IMAGINE a Folies Bergere where the costumes are so pretty that people keep them on rather than take them off, and you have Massenet's Cherubin as it appears at Covent Garden in its very first British staging. A thing of pure but dubiously decorative values, it is punctuated by inconsequential dialogue, floating amiably along on a cloud of quasi-rococo charm. In fairness, it was never intended to do more: Massenet wrote it as a bauble for the Monte Carlo Opera. The narrative, a sequel to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, asks the question: what happens to that over-sexed adolescent Cherubino after the curtain falls? (Answer: he carries on chasing women.) And as Massenet's Cherubino is still only 17, the composer saw fit to keep him as a trouser role sung by a mezzo. This gave people the pleasure of hearing the celebrated Mary Garden in the lead and seeing (a rare thing in 1905) a pair of shapely female legs exposed to the thigh.

This, I fear, is what Cherubin comes down to: what you might call operanatomy - with enchanting, gracious, but unmemorable writing for the voice. A collector's piece which, for good reason, vanished from the stage until 1989, when the Canadian Mario Bernadi conducted a performance in America. Bernadi conducts again here, replacing Gennady Rozhdestvensky - and it is at this point that I can register warmer feelings. Tim Albery's production takes the piece on its own terms, with a lightly decorative hand that enlarges the resonances of Figaro and introduces a Figaro/

Susanna servant couple who interpolate English translations of the spoken dialogue. Tres Folies Bergere. The singing is a treat, with delightful work by Maria Bayo, Angela Gheorgiu and the American mezzo Susan Graham, who makes a fine Royal Opera debut in the title role. And Bernadi is a hero in the pit.

Another conductor, Carlo Rizzi, is the hero of the Welsh National Opera's new Turandot. Christopher Alden's anti- romantic production had some good ideas. We were, of course, in a totalitarian regime suspended in time between ancient China and fascist Italy. The curtain rose on a wall of photographs of Turandot's victims looking, collectively, like an Amnesty International exhibit and, individually, like people who were sitting near me in the audience (could there be some connection?). The best idea was a strong visual parallel between the Emperor and Timur: two old royal dads together, driven into helpless torment by their crazy children. But otherwise the presentation was cliche-ridden and the temporal cross- dressing unconvincing. It failed the litmus test of any Turandot, which is to determine some kind of psychological rationale for the mutual attraction of Turandot and Calaf. What Mary Jane Johnson and Edmund Barham see in each other, I don't know: she is an American soprano whose grating, curdled tone makes memories of Gwyneth Jones glow sweetly in the ear, while Barham's Calaf has all the charisma of a King Edward potato. But there is pleasure in Patricia Racette's vibrant, big- voiced Liu, and Carlo Rizzi draws a wonderful, cantabile strength of statement from his orchestra and chorus.

The English National Opera's Falstaff, revived this week, has exactly the same problem of designs that try, and fail, to stitch together ancient and modern: a bit of Tudorbethan romance, a bit of 1940s suburban and a lot of artifice that robs the piece of its humanity and warmth. The final scene is horribly over-wrought, with fluorescent liquid pumping through the branches of Herne's Oak like the water feature in a Californian hotel. On Thursday it sprang a leak.

One could argue that Falstaff is itself a hybrid: Shakespeare's England recreated in Verdi's Italy. But whether it be Thames-side or Tiberian, Falstaff is a radiant celebration of the human spirit. And this ENO staging isn't very radiant. The only joy comes from the pit where yet another conductor- hero, Andrew Litton, encourages the orchestra to dominate the sound balance. Sometimes it is too much but, overall, this is a strong, assured and memorable reading, in an ENO debut that ought to earn Litton some return invitations.

If anyone earned some invitations this week, though, it is David Leveaux, the director responsible for a remarkable new production of Britten's Turn of the Screw. This is a Scottish Opera venture happening not at the Theatre Royal but at the Glasgow Tramway: an undelineated performance space of great potential. For the Screw - where atmosphere is critical - it's perfect. Leveaux arranges its large black space as a dark Victorian garden, spread with autumnal earth and contained, to the right, by a glass conservatory wall and, to the rear, by a lake. Designed by Vicki Mortimer, it works with a cinematic effectiveness, beautifully tailored to the short, intercut scenes of this most structurally conscious of operas. And Leveaux turns the screw with an intensity that never fails. I didn't care for the way his governess arrived at Bly by bicycle - apparently popping down the road rather than making a momentous entrance to an isolated new life - but from then on the direction is powerful and physically demonstrative, loaded with recurring imagery of the tug-of- war waged for possession of the children. In this production it's a balanced fight between a vocally alluring Peter Quint (Philip Salmon) and a tough, determined governess (Anne Williams-King), with no obvious moral supremacy on either side.

The children in Turn of the Screw are hard to cast. The Miles I heard (they alternate) was small of voice. But the Flora, Paula Bishop, is a find: a genuinely young girl - as opposed to a youngish ingenue - and very accomplished. So, too, is Timothy Lole, the young conductor. Although his phrasing could be tighter and firmer - the 'Ceremony of Innocence' duet isn't climactic enough - he compensates with a musicianly finesse that gives the singers space to build expressiveness into their lines. And his 13-piece orchestra sounded as rich and pungent as a symphony ensemble. No one hearing this performance could say that Britten's orchestral writing was thin. Precise, focused and brilliantly imagined, yes. Thin, no. If you are within striking distance of Glasgow, I urge you to hear it for yourself. The run ends on 26 February.

Finding myself within striking distance of Berlin, I caught what has to be a milestone in the career of Claudio Abbado: a performance of Mahler's massive Symphony No 8, which marked both the beginning of a large-scale Faust series at the Philharmonie and the end of the conductor's lifelong journey through the Mahler symphonies. London audiences know Abbado to be an outstanding Mahlerian; but until last weekend he had never conducted No 8. It was an unforgettable experience: not so raw with nervous energy as, say, a Tennstedt reading, but enormously grand and eloquent. A starry cast of soloists (Cheryl Studer, Sylvia McNair, Anne Sofie von Otter, Bryn Terfel) sang alongside the Berlin Phil, whose playing on home ground shows how the iron discipline of its former Fuhrer has been tempered by a new, more pliant expressivity. The concert was recorded by DG for issue next year, so you can judge for yourself. For myself, I sat wondering why even the best of British orchestras can't generate a string sound like this.

'Cherubin': ROH, 071-240 1066, Mon, Thurs, Sat. 'Turandot': WNO, 0222 394844, Tues, Fri. 'Falstaff': ENO, 071-836 3161, Tues, Fri. 'Turn of the Screw': Glasgow Tramway, 041-227 5511, Tues, Thurs and Sat.