CLASSICAL MUSIC / Progress, after a fashion

BEDLAM arrives earlier than expected in the new Opera Factory production of The Rake's Progress. Where Stravinsky steers his Rake along a path of gradual decline that collapses into lunacy and mayhem only in the last Act, Opera Factory (steered by David Freeman at the QEH) drop him into the abyss by Scene 2: the Brothel Scene which, as anyone who knows Freeman's work might have guessed, comes with no holds barred. From then on, the Rake's world is a nightmare populated by a chorus of crazies whose wardrobe and behavioural disorders have been lifted from one of Madonna's less family-oriented videos. And yes, this is a modern-day Rake's Progress, relocated (as its painted backdrops explain) to a cardboard city on the South Bank. That the derelicts have such radical-chic dress sense is confusing; but we are, most definitely, in the fall-out from Thatcher's Britain. And it's not a pretty sight.

In some ways, what Freeman does here is true to the spirit of the piece. He signals (in semaphore) that the Rake is a Morality, and acknowledges that the libretto is so choked with allusion to the standard business of repertory opera that it reads in archetypal terms, like a retrospective of its genre. The Madonna-isms are a sort of top- up, a stab at keeping the allusiveness alive to the changing language of performance.

The problem is that Freeman's raunchy, anything-goes theatre is at odds with the fastidious neoclassicism of Stravinsky's music. And the strong ensemble style that has often kept Freeman's riskier ventures afloat wasn't obvious on the opening night. It didn't look quite ready for an audience.

That said, it sounded fine. Mark Tucker's Rake is short on pathos but vocally attractive; Mary Plazas is a stunning Anne, with the clean, aerial brightness of a Dawn Upshaw but more colour and expression; and Geoffrey Dolton (Nick Shadow) is an Opera Factory regular who goes from strength to strength. A stylish but high- voltage all-round actor-singer.

Johannes Schaaf demands as much of the entire cast in his 1987 production of Le nozze di Figaro, revived at Covent Garden; and as before, its sheer forensic sharpness is unsettling. Proceeding at the pace of spoken theatre (Pinter's, that is) rather than of buffo opera, it does drag, but the extra time allows an input of detail so inventive that those tired old Figaro routines gain a sense of purpose that restores the serious challenge to social order at the heart of Beaumarchais' original play. This is a household where the masters are only superficially in control; and where a Figaro with the presence of Bryn Terfel (chief contender for superstardom among young British singers) can really assert himself.

Around him is a cherishable cast led by Jeffrey Black's Count and Sylvia McNair's Susanna. You might query the wisdom of Christine Brewer's Countess: she's a big lady, and Schaaf has enlarged the touch of comic pathos he always found in the role to acknowledge her physique rather than pretend it isn't there. When she makes her first entrance, from under a mountain of bedclothes in the preamble to 'Porgi Amor', she looks like Divine cross-bred with Hattie Jacques. The audience laugh, though whether they are meant to isn't obvious. But like the real Jacques, Ms Brewer turns out to have a bosomly dignity. And when the voice comes, there's no laughing: just astonishment at its extraordinary depth of colour and full-bodied texture.

The set designs are scrappy, Hartmut Haenchen's conducting is irredeemably slow, and the orchestral sound manages to be thin, hard and still not clear. But otherwise the combination of cast and staging sets a precedent of purposeful intelligence in opera.

Staying more or less with Mozart, last weekend saw the British premiere of a piece whose genre was a standard feature of 19th-century concert life: a fantasy paraphrase for violin and orchestra on themes from The Magic Flute. The composer was Sarasate, one of the string masters of his time; and the latter-day executant was Yuri Braginsky, a Russian violinist who has made a speciality of tracking down these operatic fantasies - sometimes, necessarily, from the original manuscripts in that they tended to be kept and guarded as personal property by the maestri who devised them. Braginsky claims to have unearthed 100 of them, which should make a fine hoard for some enterprising record company. The Sarasate is certainly a winner - amiably attractive, with the tunes you know and love embellished just enough to tease the ear but not to be grotesque. Virtuoso display is kept, surprisingly, within the realms of taste. Braginsky himself is just as engaging: little-known in Britain but with a fine-spun purity and elevation that deserves a wider audience. This Oxford concert (at the Sheldonian with the New Chamber Orchestra) ought to have won him some followers.

The forces that determine which artists from abroad make serious careers in Britain remain mysterious. A case in point is Richard Goode, the American pianist who has been around for a long while but never, in this country at least, as a major star. When his new Beethoven sonata cycle launched at the QEH last month it was poorly attended. But suddenly the word is out that Mr Goode is something special. And on Tuesday, for the third programme in the cycle, the QEH was virtually full, with a buzz in the auditorium that wasn't air-conditioning.

If you've heard Goode's Beethoven recordings, you can begin to understand just how special these sonatas (they included both the Opus 27s and the Opus 110) proved to be. But 'begin' is the word. They were astonishing: a paradigm of artistry, keenly controlled and organised, but with the radiant artlessness that truly great musicians somehow suggest. Goode may not present an ideal Beethovenian legato - he can be a fraction over-crisp - but his command of nuance, his apportionment of weight, his sense of timing are impeccable. And he lays out this repertory the way thriller-writers plan their plots: charting the contours of the argument with crises, clues and revelations, every one a minor miracle of judgement. There's no more of the sonata cycle till November. You'd be wise to book.

'Rake's Progress' continues Tues & Fri (071-928 8800), 'Figaro' Mon & Wed (071-240 1066).

(Photograph omitted)

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