CLASSICAL MUSIC / All dressed up, nowhere to go

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The Independent Culture
UMBERTO Giordano's Fedora is not what its name suggests - a variation on The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat - but something sillier and, in the best traditions of veristic opera, less believable. The story (Russian princess falls in love with murderer, then kills herself with poison that she prudently wears round her neck in case of need) comes from a boulevard play by Sardou, that unparalleled dispenser of late 19th-century pieces bien faite, including Tosca. And you could call Fedora (the princess) a Tosca prototype. She certainly appealed to late 19th-century opera audiences, who not only named their hats after her but provided Giordano with a huge box-office success. Fedora, it was said, 'fe d'oro': struck gold. And the 1898 premiere, at La Scala, Milan, established Enrico Caruso (singing the killer Ipanov) as a household name.

But Fedora's day was short-lived. Not since 1928 has it been seen at Covent Garden, so the production that opened there this week was like a lifting of the dust sheets. It begged the question: what have we been missing all these years? The answer, I'm afraid, is not a lot.

As theatre, Fedora does the right things (electric servants' bells, characters on bicycles, absolument a la mode for 1898) and attempts a Tosca-esque juxtaposition of salon passions against a background of historical events (the assassination of Tsar Alexander II). But its gestures are absurdly empty. Likewise its score, which doesn't flinch from the obvious, the banal and the pathetic. Fedora's death scene is invaded by two reprises of the touching, offstage shepherd boy's refrain heard earlier in the act. One would be touching enough.

That said, there are redeeming features. The tunes tread water and come to nothing but are passably engaging. So is Giordano's enthusiasm for local colour - which runs, as it were, in the wash but is bright and fun to start with. In fact the whole thing is fun, if you take it simply as a vehicle for two big stars. Here, they are Mirella Freni and Jose Carreras, who don't exactly surrender their souls to the piece, but who have a definite presence. Freni is, at 59, in glorious vocal shape, with a strong, succulent, spinto body to the tone that fleshes out the still-detectable lyric charm of her earlier career. And although Carreras forces his tone rather harshly, there is a darker fulness in the voice of late - a richer sound than he produced two years ago.

So, no complaints there. Nor about Jonathan Summers (who shines among the supporting cast), Edward Downes (who conducts), or the production (Lamberto Pugelli) - unremarkable but unexceptionable, it sets the action in a sequence of late 19th-century furniture repositories. I'm just not sure Fedora is worth the collective effort; still less worth pounds 159 for an orchestra stalls seat.

The Covent Garden Festival, which opened this week in the streets around the Opera House, is better value and more interesting, having grown in recent years from a local restaurant promotion into one of the most imaginative music festivals around. That it opened with a batch of medieval music dramas and a thriller opera based on 'The Waste Land' indicates a certain breadth of outlook. And the centrepiece of the week was Handel's Saul, semi-staged with period instruments under Paul McCreesh in the Freemasons' Hall.

McCreesh is a distinguished name in period reconstructions, and I have to say that this wasn't one of his best efforts. Apart from Jonathan Peter Kenny's fulsome, creamy countertenor David, the singing was poor and the staging misguided. With everyone dressed in a theatrical costumier's job-lot of Edwardian military that looked like off-the-peg Gilbert and Sullivan, it was a grim example of the tendency, these days, to overplay the comedy in Handel operas.

But then, Saul is not actually an opera. It's an oratorio. And what was interesting was that McCreesh attempted to stage it at all. As a matter of history, Handel's oratorios were not staged: not, at least, in the composer's lifetime. But Handel certainly conceived them as a kind of theatre with, in many cases, stage instructions. Paradoxically, they come closer to latter-day dramatic ideals than the operas do, to the extent that their scores are not handicapped by the conventions of opera seria.

It follows that a piece like Saul, structured around personal conflicts with a colourfully narrative orchestration, a chorus that doesn't dominate, and limited recourse to the literally show-stopping repetitions of da capo aria, has real potential as theatre. And McCreesh helps it on its way, with a few well-chosen adjustments to the normal canon of the score. For example, he has shifted the Hallelujah Chorus (a less robust precursor of the one in The Messiah) from the beginning to the end. This was where Handel originally placed it, until he succumbed to pressure from his librettist.

The effect of such a reordering is to drive home the idea of music as sculpted time, plastic and malleable. And although performers don't usually take such surgical liberties with the contours of a score, some kind of adjustment is basic to personality in performance. Some works leave considerable scope for it: not least the mighty Hammerklavier Sonata with which the Chilean pianist Alfredo Perl filled his lunchtime recital at St John's, Smith Square, on Monday. It was an awesome undertaking to offer this killer-whale of a work in such circumstances - cold, alone, and in the middle of the day - and there were anxious moments in the opening Allegro. But from then on it developed into a commanding tour de force: a feat of pure imagination that took the Adagio to the threshold of feasibility - with very slow speeds - yet pulled it off convincingly and brilliantly. There's talk of Perl doing a Beethoven cycle at the Wigmore Hall in 1995. If it happens, I'll be in the queue.

'Fedora': continues at Covent Garden, WC2, 071-240 1911, Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri.