CLASSICAL MUSIC / Better late than never, but not by much

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The Independent Culture
TIME WAS already up for Massenet when Griselidis had its premiere at the Opera-Comique in 1901. He had been enormously prolific and successful - in a sense, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of the belle epoque: the natural heir to Offenbach and Gounod who, by now, were in their graves. But Griselidis arrived just a few weeks before Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande; and with Pelleas the spirit of the age moved on. Massenet's ingratiating tunefulness began to ring hollow, and Griselidis made no more than a brief claim on the repertory. Nor did it ever get to Britain - until this week when the Guildhall School presented a student staging to a first-night audience stiff with opera-house administrators who had come to see if it was something for them.

Well, the first thing they'll have noticed is that Griselidis is no masterpiece. The story is one those stock operatic jobs of a constant woman put to the test, and the fact that her tempter is a comic devil doesn't redeem its distastefulness in the way that comedy redeems, say, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. In fact, the comedy is clumsy, awkward and out of kilter with the music, which comes with either easy lyricism or ardent overstatement. How you fix the personality of the piece from its melange of melodrama, pantomime and camp religiosity I'm not sure; and neither, apparently, is the director of this staging, Caroline Gawn, who - along with her designer - seems at a loss with the whole thing.

But Griselidis has one saving grace: a charm that blossoms into pliant, delicate melodic lines. If music were susceptible to gender, Massenet's would be feminine (like the nicknames he attracted in his lifetime: 'fille de Gounod' and 'belle-soeur de Bizet'). Grateful for the voice, it fits smoothly to the line of the text and makes a good setting for student voices to shine in - as they do here, led by the powerfully top-projecting soprano of Catrin Wyn Davies, and supported by strong robusto singing from Jeffrey Stewart as the tenor who, for once, doesn't get the girl (one of the worrying things about the structure of Griselidis in that he opens the action and presents himself a major character, only to fade into the middle distance). David Lloyd- Jones conducts the Guildhall orchestra, and pulls off the odd coup. But you leave feeling how close the medieval French fairy-tale world of Griselidis comes to that of Pelleas, and how shallow Massenet is by comparison.

There is another (infinitely better) comic devil in Tchaikovsky's opera Cherevichki, which I enthused about a few weeks ago after a production at Wexford. Cherevichki seemed to me to be an unequivocal masterpiece; and I'm even more convinced having heard it again, done this time at the QEH by Chelsea Opera Group. Like buses, rare operas keep you waiting for a long while, then arrive in convoy.

Chelsea Opera gave the piece in English, as The Christmas Slippers, and did it proud - even if the singers hadn't the authoritative tang of the all-Russian cast at Wexford or the strength of the Wexford chorus. Chelsea Opera, after all, is semi-professional. But it always manages to field some serious talent; and here it had a strong, clear and utterly engaging devil in Jonathan Veira, and an impressive conductor in Martyn Brabbins, who organised the score in a way that gave this concert performance a sharper focus than it had on stage.

There is much distractive comic incident in Cherevichki; but essentially this is a quest opera. Vakula, the tenor lead, has to track down a pair of the Tsarista's boots, as a challenge; and that makes him a heroic figure, all the braver for not being a natural hero but a vulnerably lovesick village blacksmith. Christopher Gillett was Chelsea Opera's Vakula, and a good choice: straining for his top notes, but with a pleading, Anglican innocence in the voice that made him touching and real - in a way that brute Wagnerian heldentenors, who have nothing to prove, never are.

It's an irony of European music at the turn of the century that French composers fantasised about Spain while Spanish composers emigrated to Paris. But they usually came back, and last weekend the pianist Nicholas Unwin played a programme at Blackheath Concert Halls that was a Hispanic travelogue: from Catalunya to Andalucia through the ears of Granados, Albeniz and de Falla, in pieces whose sun-baked brightness camouflaged extreme technical difficulties that Unwin tackled with largesse and spirit.

But the week's biggest spirit showed at the 50th-anniversary concert of the City Music Society at Goldsmith's Hall. Established during the war to boost the morale of City workers, the CMS has been a great force for good in London's music, promoting young artists, commissioning new works, and running recital seasons that any major concert hall could envy.

Throughout, it has largely been the work of one man: Ivan Sutton, one of the last genuine gentleman-enthusiasts to hold a position of power in the arts world. Tuesday's concert marked his retirement and, typically, it involved an experiment, bringing together for the first time the cellist Steven Isserlis with the pianist Stephen Kovacevich. They made a good (though I suspect not durable) partnership; and a distinctive high note to bow out on.

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