CLASSICAL MUSIC / Lost Russians sing Wexford

Wexford is a bleak Irish town with a basic theatre, persistent rain and an annual opera festival. If this served up Traviatas and Butterflys, you wouldn't make the journey. But Wexford digs into the bottom drawer of the opera cabinet and pulls out things you'd never hear elsewhere - such as Anton Rubinstein's The Demon, which opened this year's festival on Thursday.

Rubinstein is principally remembered as a pianist, and as the founder of the St Petersburg Conservatoire, where his first students included one P I Tchaikovsky. As a composer, he was marginalised by Western leanings at a time when nationalism was the rallying cry of Russian music. But for that reason he was a role model to Tchaikovsky; and to hear The Demon is to hear the embryonic sound-world of Eugene Onegin - not so vividly imagined or so technically remarkable, but a pleasing sequence of romances.

The story of The Demon is Wagneresque: a fallen spirit loves a mortal woman and pursues her to a monastery, believing that her love will redeem him.

Unfortunately, in an un- Wagnerian denouement, angelic forces intervene and whisk her off to heaven. Foiled again.

It follows that this demon is a sympathetic character, a lyric baritone who gets the best tunes. But he doesn't get the necessary dramatic profile. The first two acts are preoccupied with his beloved and her plans to marry a mortal, Sinodal (the tenor lead); so when the demon claims the stage in Act III for a gloriously sustained duet d'amour it feels as if the piece has abruptly shifted gear.

Wexford's director, Yefim Maazel, offers no solution to this in a cosmetically modernist staging that betrays itself by letting the singers stand on the furniture and spread their arms, as singers will, for no good reason. The singers are largely Russian - and very good, especially Marina Mescheriakova, a soprano from the Bolshoi who sings Tamara with electrifying brilliance. Anatoly Lochak is an effectively down-at-heel Demon, Valery Serkin a striking young Sinodal; and collectively they justify, I suppose, Wexford's decision to stick with the original Russian text. But in principle it seems absurd that Wexford persistently programmes little-known operas in little-known languages.

Back in Britain, Massenet's Don Quixote, at ENO, is a piece of Wexfordian rareness (last London staging 1912) that might have surfaced in this column last week but was squeezed out by the Covent Garden Ring - and deservedly so, because Don Quixote belongs to that genre of opera known to cognoscenti as Old Tosh. Pure candy confection, whipped up late in the composer's life for the casino audience at Monte Carlo, its only ever claim to fame was as a vehicle for the great Russian bass Chaliapin. At ENO it becomes a vehicle for Richard van Allen and Alan Opie (as Sancho Panza) who provide a vaguely diverting slant on the master- servant scenario but, frankly, have nothing to work with. The few strengths of the score lie in its chorus ensembles and Spanish dance numbers which the conductor, Emmanuel Joel, delivers well enough and the director, Ian Judge, enlarges into West End spectacle.

Otherwise, it's just another tick on that list.

Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is of a different order, and so was Graham Vick's production in this year's Glyndebourne Festival: a thing of tender severity whose empty, cream-washed rooms and billowing gauze curtains caught the opera's tone of lyrical refinement to perfection. It has come back for the Glyndebourne Tour as cleanly beautiful as ever, with just the right amount of detail to be fascinating rather than congealing and still - even though the revival has passed to other hands - alive with Vick's near-infallible sense of how to fill the space between the singing. Nobody, but nobody, does it better than this. And I'm tempted to say as much of the central performances. Robert Hayward's Onegin is outstanding: strong with dark and fulsome tone. And Susan Chilcott, the Tatiana, is magnificent: a luscious young voice of heart-stopping dramatic urgency in the letter scene, and immaculate poise in the transformation to womanhood at the end. It's a performance you could leave thinking a star had just been born before your eyes.

The South Bank's ongoing Deutsche Romantik festival served up two of its biggest attractions this week with Weber's Euryanthe and Schumann's Scenes from Faust: the one a grand romantic opera by a master of the medium, the other a quasi-operatic hybrid by a composer who had no instinct for theatre.

Neither is often done, but Euryanthe is the greater loss, as this memorable concert performance proved. It is quintessentially Romantic, a quality hard to define except as a reordering of priorities (emotion above intellect) that get you from Beethoven to Wagner. Weber was an all-important carrier between the two: a man trying to integrate the diverse disciplines of opera long before Wagner seized on the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk. And in Euryanthe you catch the excitement of transition, with muscular choruses straining to become something else, and an engaging sense of experiment in the way a Beethovenian orchestra is reorganised to make new sound-relationships and colours. Such things registered with uncommon clarity on the period instruments of the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra under Mark Elder. The playing was of a high order. So was the singing, with soloists such as Elizabeth Connell, Nicholas Folwell (replacing the advertised Willard White) and the potent American soprano Christine Brewer in the title role.

She also appeared in the Scenes from Faust, but in a lesser role that couldn't save the night from disappointment. Schumann's score proved awkwardly uneven - a Berliozan hybrid of opera, oratorio and choral symphony that Franz Welser-Most failed to pull together - and the LPO Chorus wasn't together either. As for the LPO itself, morale is obviously low. The orchestra has problems; and you hear them all too clearly in its playing.

'Don Quixote', Coliseum, 071- 836 0111; 'Eugene Onegin', Glyndebourne, 0273 813813.

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