Classical Music / Cheap wine and monsters

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"PELLEAS et Melisande in a council house!" complained a member of the audience at half time. While not entirely accurate - the set looked to me like sheltered accommodation for a community of psychotics - this made the point that Richard Jones's new Opera North production of this porcelain-delicate piece doesn't exactly wrap it in cotton wool. The royal household of Allemonde here inhabits a sketchbook world, designed by Antony McDonald in the Nigel-Lowery-brutal-chic style of ENO's Blond Eckbert and the current Covent Garden Ring. You could argue that it reflects the sketched quality of Maeterlink's text, where nothing is explained and no character has real dimension. But Debussy's music is another matter: there's a disturbing conflict between the sensual delicacy of what you hear and the abrasive, hard-edged starkness of what you see. Jones's response to the mystery of the piece is to model its characters on the Addams Family and the cast of Oliver!, with a Faginesque Arkel left holding the baby at the end - as those exquisite final chords fall through the orchestra - clearly about to tell us he's Reviewing the Situation.

The only word for this is grotesque - a description which applies equally well to Jones's persistent attempts to circumvent the demands of the libretto. Literalism isn't the order of the day in a piece like Pelleas, so when Golaud says he'll never find his way out of the forest, while standing against a backdrop of the Arizona desert (or something equally treeless), I don't mind too much. I also understand why any director would balk at the scene where Melisande lets her hair down from the tower: dreadful precedents of several feet of mangled cat-fur tumbling through a window while the audience giggles linger in the mind. But Jones's revisionist solution - to play the scene in a room, on the level, as a lovers' fantasy - doesn't work either. And the way he sweeps other problematic bits of business to conveniently offstage locations ("Oh look, there's a crown in the water!" says Golaud, pointing behind the proscenium) is music-hall stuff. Lamentably crude.

More positively, there is one very striking (although undeveloped) idea: that Melisande, who makes her first entrance through one of seven numbered doors, may be a bride of Bluebeard. The one that got away. Vocally, there is a fine young Pelleas in William Dazely and a strong (though dramatically soft) Golaud from Robert Hayward. Paul Daniel conducts with accomplished sensitivity. But overall this production isn't sensitive to atmosphere or tension; and the star it should have had in Joan Rodgers' Melisande isn't shining brightly at the moment. The voice is watery and white: not yet recovered, I'd guess, from a recent childbirth.

For truly stylish singing in French repertory last week, you needed to hear Francois Le Roux and Francoise Pollet marking the 150th birthday of Gabriel Faure at the Wigmore Hall. Le Roux's warmly inviting, elegantly focused baritone was in superb form for that most heart-catching of song cycles, L'Horizon Chimerique; and for repertoire collectors, he was joined by Mme Pollet (such a gloriously fat, French tone) for all three of Faure's vocal duets, including the one for two sopranos. Transposed down as necessary.

Handelians, meanwhile, had a treat when the Opera Theatre Company of Dublin, who brought a magnificent Flavio to the Covent Garden Festival last year, made a return visit with an almost equally impressive Tamberlane. As before, this was a semi-staging performed in the cramped conditions of a church, with no blackout until the natural light faded. But James Conway, OTC's director, had the bright idea of rationalising these enforced parameters into a production concept: so, as the performance progressed, it slowly transformed from a monochrome oratorio style into deeply coloured, highly charged dramatic theatre. The limited stage area kept things tight - appropriate for an opera whose action is itself confined (every scene is an interior) and locked into chokingly close confrontations between just five characters, two of them the captives of the other three. Tamberlane is principally a tenor's opera, and Mark Padmore had considerable tragic presence as the captured emperor Bajazet. But there are fine castrati roles as well - splendidly done here by Allison Browner and Jonathan Peter Kenny, one of the most purely beautiful counter tenor voices around. With a small but telling orchestra under Seamus Crimmins, the whole thing was immaculately and incisively delivered. How OTC manage it on what must be a shoestring budget, I don't know. But this is work of a calibre that far outclasses most of the small-scale touring opera being taken in by British festivals this year. Case in point, Brighton.

The new ENO production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the sort of dream you'd have after too much blanc de blancs too late at the Caprice: a sociably surreal, post-modern romp, sprinkled with sex and such unanswered questions as why Lysander looks like Mendelssohn and why Theseus and Hippolita are dressed like Christmas crackers. The production has been bought in from Aix, where technical facilities are limited, so the staging is simple and looks rather bare on the cavernous stage of the Coliseum. But the holes get filled with striking ingenuity by director Robert Carsen, whose talent for making a little go a long way has made him quite a name in Europe. This is his London debut - and it's a good one, so long as you don't mind the fact that it has more jokes than charm. The action takes place largely on, around or in beds: a monster specimen for act one, a whole dormitory for act two. Lillian Watson's classily randy Tytania makes vigorous use of her bed, which is perhaps why Christopher Robson's Oberon looks so tired (and never makes it out of his pyjamas).

My one reservation about this Dream is that you never sense - except in Britten's music - the dark, mysterious and frighteningly random power of the fairy royals. They're too much of this world. And so are their attendants, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed et al, who function as a regimented corps de valets: miniature butlers in green tailcoats and stuck-on moustaches. But at least Carsen honours Britten's requirement that the fairies shouldn't come out of Arthur Rackham; and although it took me a while to warm to his choice of Puck (not the husky adolescent you expect but the distinctly post-pubertal Emil Wolk) I did enjoy this show. Beautifully conducted by Steuart Bedford (who should know the piece, since he assisted Britten at the premiere in 1960), there are some very attractive performances - especially from Christopher Gillett, who makes Thisbe the show-stopping role it must have been in the days when Peter Pears sang it as a wicked (and apparently very obvious) parody of Joan Sutherland.

I wish that the general clarity of diction were sharper - it would help if Carsen brought the lovers' squabbling to the front of the stage - but at least this is an opera where you can expect the audience to know the words. They are Shakespeare, after all; and no music has ever done them better justice.

'Pelleas and Melisande': Leeds Grand, 0113-245 5906, Thurs & Sat. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream': ENO, WC2, 0171-632 8300, Tues & Fri.

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