ENO, Coliseum, WC2
Ushers Bath Mozartfest
ENO's new is all surprises - some welcome, some not. The most obvious is its rejection of the picture-book values which normally govern Musorgsky's masterwork: Boris is usually a ponderous, jewel-encrusted pageant of a piece, to browse through like an arcade of shop-windows dressed for Christmas. But in this case it's a cool, sleek, stylishly controlled show: a New Labour Boris, with designs that transform 16th- century Moscow into the semblance of some fashionable Islington eatery, and cross-period costumes that look like a random raid on Angels & Bermans. Yes, it's party-time in Mother Russia. And the point, I suppose, is that from to Boris Yeltsin, the cycle of Russian history is so irrevocably hopeless that the only thing to do is go with the flow and update your wardrobe as necessary.
The flow in this production is rapid, partly because the tempos are fast and the designs are fluid enough for the scenes to run seamlessly into each other, and partly because ENO opts for the slimline, original version of the score, without the "Polish" act Musorgsky added later. But ENO does also give you the later version's closing scene of choral tumult, which more or less shifts the focus of the opera from the Russian Tsar onto the Russian people. And there the director Francesca Zambello finds herself on sure ground. Her strength is traffic control: she's good at crowds and has a West End nose for large- scale impact, which you certainly get here. For all the chic postmodernism of this show, it is a show. It packs a punch. And there's a purpose in the way it extends Musorgsky's pageant beyond the 16th century into post-Soviet times, dressing characters according to type rather than period. Boris and his henchmen become contemporary Kremlin cowboys in grey suits. Boris's children are pictures of Victorian innocence in velvet and lace. And Boris himself retreats from the grey suit into old-time Russianness as his conscience gets the better of him.
But Boris himself is a problem in this staging. He's magnificently sung by John Tomlinson, who delivers the rich, resonant capacity of voice and intensity of theatre which have made him one of the most celebrated basses in the world today. And there's a depth to his working relationship with the conductor Paul Daniel which delivers electrifying moments, even when the singing shows signs of strain. But Zambello has steered Tomlinson into a dramatic reading of the role so frenzied that it overshoots the boundaries of tragedy. Awash with manic pathos from the start, there's no descent to the abyss. There's a kind of cartoon craziness instead: a cross between Peter Grimes stalking the beach at Aldeburgh with a caricature of how Chaliapin might have done it in 1908. It needs adjustment. I daresay that will happen as the run progresses.
Generally, the show is cast at strength, with distinguished singers like Della Jones, Susan Gritton and Robert Tear (making only his second ever appearance with ENO) in supporting roles. Timothy Robinson steals your heart with a touching Simpleton. And Paul Daniel commands the orchestra and chorus with the powerfully driven qualities his recent Chandos recording (English language, with Tomlinson) proclaims. It's an arresting evening, but I'd really like to see it in a week's time.
In a public garden in Bath, there's a statue of Mozart which could belong in Vienna but for the fact that it periodically gets vandalised (no one vandalises Mozart in Vienna). It currently shows him playing the violin pizzicato, because the bow has been stolen. The statue was put there not so long ago as part of a local mother's tribute to her dead, music- loving son. The rest of her tribute was the foundation of a festival which, eight years on, has grown into the Ushers Bath Mozartfest, one of the more prestigious and most pleasurable chamber-music fixtures in the British concert calendar. The repertory, though not entirely Mozart or entirely chamber, is rooted in the core Viennese classics; and the roster of artists tells you that the interpretative approach won't be frightening any horses. The sole concession this year to cutting-edge period performance is Monica Huggett. Otherwise it's Alfred Brendel, Michael Collins, Olaf Bar, Imogen Cooper, and other similarly centre-ground names. But of course, a list like that spells quality, and with Amelia Freedman (also of the South Bank and the Nash Ensemble) as artistic director, this year's quality has been immaculate.
The standard was set last weekend in opening concerts by the Takacs Quartet which were a joy to hear. The Takacs are no novelty item: they've been around for 23 years in one form or another (with two changes of membership), and have been recording with Decca for a decade. But they seem, suddenly, to have become the quartet of the moment, and for good reason. This year their discs of the Bartk quartets won the Gramophone Award for best chamber recording. And the shining, rounded tone they bring to the sharp angularities of Bartk transferred beautifully in Bath to the cantabile requirements of Mozart's "Hoffmeister" Quartet, K499. The piece makes use of motifs from vocal numbers in The Marriage of Figaro and needs to "sing" to make its mark. The correlative of that rounded tone is a sometimes muted attack, and I'd have liked the veils to part more keenly in the opening of Mozart's "Dissonance" Quartet, K465. But there was fire in their tempos (they especially thrive on fast finales), and an exhilarating sense of common purpose forged from the input of four distinctive characters: an assertively elegant first violin; a subversive, free-spirited second; a compliantly accommodating viola; and a light but warm-toned cellist. Despite one minor mishap when the subversive second lost his bow (a lot of that about in Bath), their morning concert at the Guildhall was one of the most engaging performances of anything I've heard in a long while.
I'm not sure how engaged I was by Paul McCreesh's King Arthur at the Barbican on Tuesday. It was nicely put together, with the shapely rhythmic freedom McCreesh communicates to his Gabrieli Consort players through a shapely one-man ballet at the rostrum. But it was under-powered, in need of bigger (and frankly, better) vocal sound. The textures felt thin and slight.
As for Thursday's news that Kurt Masur is to be the LPO's new principal conductor, that certainly engages me, but with concern. It was clearly on the cards, given the amount of time Masur has been spending in the company of Serge Dorny, the LPO's chief executive, and given Dorny's evasiveness whenever I've asked him about it. But a welcome prospect? Maybe not. Masur's record in his current position with the New York Philharmonic has been equivocal - he won't be coming to us wreathed in glory. And apart from that, he's an old-school conservative, unlikely to be masterminding vigorous, exploratory projects at the South Bank. All I can say for this appointment is that Dorny is a man of good judgement and long-term vision who obviously sees a potential in Masur that many of the rest of us can't. I hope we're wrong and he's right.
'': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Wed & Fri; in rep to 11 December.Reuse content