CLASSICAL MUSIC / Brook cuts Debussy down to sighs: Pelleas et Melisande - Tramway Theatre - Glasgow; Don Pasquale - ENO; Festival of Britten - Barbican; The Turn of the Tide - City of London Sinfonia

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The Independent Culture
PELLEAS et Melisande is Tristan und Isolde rewritten on tissue paper: the same story told in terms of Debussyan innuendos rather than Wagnerian expletives, and a fragile apparatus that you interfere with at your peril. But cue the perilous Peter Brook and a very specific vision of what Pelleas is about, and you can almost get away with it - as Brook's Impressions de Pelleas almost got away with it at the Tramway Theatre, Glasgow last week.

Impressions is the latest of the international touring productions, small in scale but epic in ambition, that Brook has made his metier; and Glasgow is its only port of call in Britain, signalling the special relationship that Brook (self-exiled to Paris for many years) maintains with the city. The Tramway was, after all, his creation, as a 'radical space' to house The Mahabharata.

What Glasgow gets here, though, is a quality product of questionable motivation. Brook calls it Impressions de Pelleas rather defensively; it is, in fact, a melt-down of Debussy's original. One-third of the music is removed, the orchestra is reduced to two pianos, and ancillary roles excised. To mould what's left into coherence there is some reordering of scenes (it starts with the reading of the letter and recounts the discovery of Melisande in flashback) and the introduction of a conceit that the whole thing is a parlour game played out under the watchful eyes of little Yniold (archetypal child-witness to parental adultery) and a presumably symbolic goldfish in a bowl.

The idea of Pelleas as the fantasy inner life of a Parisian bourgeois family is not new; but Brook takes it further, as a comment on Debussy's music as well as Maeterlink's play. Here, says Brook, we have a composer whose vocal style matured through writing songs - the most intimate of musical genres - and wouldn't it be interesting to trace Debussy's opera back to its origins? To people in a drawing-room singing around a piano - which was how the piece was repeatedly given by Debussy himself before an opera house showed interest in it?

There is something to be said for this; but much to lose by it as well, because at the end of the day Pelleas is carried by the orchestra. The vocal writing can be transparent to the point of blandness; it's the orchestral colour that counts, and what Brook attempts in his reduction is like running a race with your legs tied together. A perversely self-inflicted handicap.

The remarkable thing is that he gets as far as he does, with exceptionally refined performances from a young cast who more than justify the intimiste domestic focus. Brook's touring scheme of nightly shows requires a pool of alternating singers, and the ones I heard were impressive: an oriental flower of a Melisande from Korean soprano Jungwon Park, and a vibrant example of the high-altitude baritone voice known as a baryton-Martin from the Pelleas of Jean-Francois Lapointe. There was no conductor, but on such a small scale things were easily coordinated from the lead piano and the playing was supple and idiomatic from start to finish. I just wish Brook's scissors had left more music to be effective with.

The week's other new arrival was Don Pasquale at ENO in a production by Patrick Mason first done for Opera North two years ago. It was, and remains, a brilliantly adroit piece of work, built around the consummate comic timing of Andrew Shore in the title role and amplified at ENO into a classic double act with the introduction of Alan Opie as Dr Malatesta. To find two of the finest actor-singers on the English opera stage paired together like this is no bad thing. But the production has not survived its journey south unscathed. It looks lost on the immense Coliseum stage; and it moves too slowly, held back by undistinguished conducting. Rosemary Joshua's Norina is pert but squandered on a terminally dull Ernesto (Adrian Martin). No one so lively would ever get hitched to someone with so little charisma and so few top notes.

The LSO's Festival of Britten began oddly at the Barbican on Thursday with a concert that contained no Britten whatever beyond a reduced orchestration of some Mahler that he made in the 1940s. The apparent rationale was to set the composer in before-and-after context (Mahler was an early influence) and it included a premiere by Britten's one-time assistant, Colin Matthews, called Memorial: a striking exercise in slow speeds and dense textures held across solemn pedal ostinati and perforated by great gashes of abrasive brass and woodwind colour. If that sounds a familiar formula, there are indeed aspects of the score where Gorecki meets Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem; and as someone who worked (as producer) on the ubiquitous recording of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony, Matthews knows the formula better than most. But Memorial is not simplistic: it is rich and cultivated writing that Matthews, in a telling analogy, likens to the architecture of the Lutyens war memorial at Thiepval. Heavy but meticulous. It also develops the processional preoccupations of earlier Matthews scores, accumulating a momentous charge of power and presence.

By comparison, Peter Maxwell Davies's new orchestral score, The Turn of the Tide, sounded scant and thin when it had its London premiere on Wednesday (the City of London Sinfonia unremarkably conducted by Adrian Leaper). But the significance of this piece extends far beyond its notes. It was written as the cornerstone of a national schools' project, to be performed with inserts devised by children as classroom exercises based on the ecological themes of the work.

There are currently 16 orchestras and thousands of children participating in the project throughout Britain, and the children on Wednesday came from Newham - which happens to be where I got my own early musical education, largely in the public library. So I took a personal interest in what they were doing, and was impressed. But the irony is that while the music profession takes on greater responsibilities for musical education, the traditional providers are backing off. The whole system of peripatetic instrumental tuition is under threat. And I discovered last weekend, on a trip back to my old public library, that the shelves of scores I used to know and love had gone. I asked where they were. The librarian said they had been thrown away for lack of space. Memo to Maxwell Davies: keep on writing.

'Pasquale' continues tomorrow and on Wednesday (071-836 3161).

(Photograph omitted)

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