CLASSICAL MUSIC / Focus, finesse, now seduction: Pelleas et Melisande - Debussy; Israel in Egypt - Handel; Passion and Resurrection - Jonathan Harvey

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The Independent Culture
LAST YEAR it was Pierre Boulez in Cardiff, a few weeks ago Peter Brook in Glasgow, and now Claudio Abbado at Covent Garden. The turnover of powerful personalities at large in Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande has left British audiences with no shortage of alternative perspectives on the piece; and for all the focus of Boulez and the finesse of Brook, it's the sheer seductiveness of Abbado's version that, I think, takes precedence. Conducting at the Royal Opera for the first time in a decade, Abbado has brought with him a travelling package - new here but originally produced by the late Antoine Vitez at La Scala, Milan, in 1986 and then at the Vienna Staatsoper. It has kept the same lead singers throughout, Francois Le Roux and Frederica von Stade. It has transferred to disc (with a different Melisande but still, easily, the best modern recording around). And it wears its years with amazing freshness, if that's a word you can apply to an opera whose imagery is claustrophobic, stifling, and pervaded by the sickly smell of death.

Abbado has a genius for unaffected detail. The gestures are small but certain, the textures light but luminous. He doesn't drive the score as hard as Boulez, but he has an absolute command of pace that gathers energy exactly where it needs to and reports the modest peaks and troughs of Maeterlinck's dramatic contours like the monitor on someone's life-support equipment. Every blip is accounted for. When Melisande lets down her hair, the orchestra cascades with the erotic charge of Messiaen in miniature. When she dies, with un-operatic reserve, the orchestra dies with her, teasing out its heartbeat to a frozen stillness in the closing bars. This is superlative musicianship.

As for the stage performances, they could be better directed. The gradient through which Victor Braun's Golaud ascends in jealous anger isn't smooth enough to be convincing; and Yniold (a small soprano, Patrizia Pace, rather than the small boy it ought to be) is horribly arch. But Von Stade is lovely in the nihilistic, mutedly expressive way that Melisande presents her loveliness. And Le Roux is quite simply the finest Pelleas of his generation: passionate, intense, robustly innocent and sung with a relish for the tonal values of French that few singers dare unless they are either born to it or happy to sound like Maurice Chevalier a creme de menthe too far.

The production plays Pelleas as a juvenile: a Debussyan cousin of Delius's village Romeo who scampers on in breeches and gives literal dimension to Golaud's comment about enfants at play. His playground is a sequence of entrancing sets by Yannis Kokkos (designer/director of the current WNO Tristan) that take a comparably literal approach to the Alternative Perspectives business. I have rarely seen a more alternative perspective than the one offered in the well scene - a point where Pelleas and Melisande are usually found peering down a hole in the stage and trying to sing to the audience at the same time. A severe case of conflicting objectives. Here, you see them from the viewpoint of a person at the bottom of the well, looking up as they look down: a brilliant coup delivered by means of a circular cut-out that explains the otherwise inexplicable packaging of Abbado's Pelleas discs on Deutsche Grammophon. That it also makes the lovers look like a pair of children's TV presenters, popping head and shoulders through the circle, is unfortunate but not disastrous because the frame-with-aperture motif runs through the whole show and serves other functions. It reduces a large stage to the right size for intimate scenes; it gives the audience a sense of telescopic focus, closing in on private deeds; and the circle-edges reinforce the opera's symbolism of an endless cycle of unknowing, of lives turning blindly on unanswered questions. One of the many virtues of this Pelleas is that it leaves the mystery intact.

Sexual preferences apart, there are few mysteries about Handel. He was a great composer, a great opportunist and a great recycler (thief, if you prefer). His oratorio Israel in Egypt is a fine example of all three qualities in that it was written quickly to capitalise on what seemed like a new market interest, with politically propagandist connotations and a heavy dependency on pre-existing music. Not necessarily his own. It is also an epic score, weighted towards choruses rather than solo numbers, that reflects its subject matter - the biblical deliverance of the Israelites, traditionally described as a story 'of nations not individuals'.

But no tradition these days is safe from the purge of period performance, and on Tuesday Israel in Egypt was done at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with just 26 voices by Harry Christophers' confusingly ennumerated choir The Sixteen. Sleek and slimline to a fault, with positively anorexic solo voices, it was an example of what gives this choir its international prestige: clean, motivated and precise musicianship. But I'd have surrendered some of the precision for more muscle, and a taste of blood in numbers like 'He smote the first-born' or 'Thou sendest forth thy wrath'. The God of Israel was no pansy.

I accept, though, that it's harder to pin down the God of Handel. There's an almost wry detachment in the way the score narrates the catalogue of punishments endured by Egypt. Plagues of locusts, flies and lice are catalogued with suitable effects, but in the manner of some 18th-century collector, curious and amused. The Egyptians drown in the Red Sea to jolly dotted rhythms. And, of course, the settings emphasise the wrong words in the texts, just as Handel, with his lifelong German-English, often did. So truth, here, has its limitations. Maybe sleek precision is the thing.

For a more conscientious approach to God, truth and word-setting you might have gone to Jonathan Harvey's church opera Passion and Resurrection, which has just been the unlikely subject of a national Contemporary Music Network tour. Conducted by Martin Neary, music director at Westminster Abbey where the tour began, it runs to a Brittenesque format of plainsong, narrative and audience participation, but in drier, more introspective terms that cramp its style as theatre. Serious, committed and meticulously worked, it threatens to become a victim of its own integrity, and only just succeeds. But it was written before Harvey - a computerised contemplative - had much experience of the ruthless practical requirements of commercial opera. Now he has an ENO commission coming up. It will be kill or cure.

'Pelleas' continues tomorrow and Wed (071-240 1066).

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