CLASSICAL MUSIC / Handel's kingdom in a kindergarten

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The Independent Culture
FOR as long as I can remember and longer, people have been rediscovering Handel opera, suddenly alerted to its beauty, elegance and oddly truthful characters who come as a surprise given the modest claims of baroque theatre to psychological insight. But it remains damnably difficult to stage. It assumes the availability of a particular voice, the castrato, which time and the NSPCC have conspired against, leaving an awkward choice of alternatives. It also has what you might call an attitude problem, inhabiting a world of 18th-century conventions - ostrich feathers and balletic gestures - that doesn't easily get through to modern audiences except when done as a period reconstruction, which is not the same as living theatre.

But recent stage history proves that Handel can survive without the feathers and gestures so long as you find other conventions to replace them. Directors such as Nicholas Hytner have made a new world for these pieces to live in: an iron lung of pseudo 18th-century whimsy that accommodates their pathos, farce and epic heroism without too much damage to the essential stand-and-deliver seriousness of the da capo aria.

The new production of Handel's Julius Caesar from Scottish Opera extends that world - a risky undertaking because Julius Caesar has come to be regarded as the greatest opera of its time, with a keen protection lobby whose members won't be pleased to know what the German director Willy Decker has done to it. So hold tight.

What he does is depict Handel's characters (who are engaged in a power struggle for the throne of ancient Egypt) in kindergarten terms - pouting, squabbling, and clambering around a playschool set: the steep incline of a custard-yellow pyramid littered with giant, symbolic toys. A paper crown, a high-chair throne. The level of exchange is raw and rude, tending to strip the characters of dignity. The score is cut from three acts in four-and-a-half hours to two acts in three hours. Liberties are taken with the orchestration. And the casting favours countertenors over trousered women in the castrato roles, with Michael Chance and Christopher Robson as Caesar and Ptolemy (but a woman, Eirian James, as Sextus).

The result is a production to be loved or loathed. I loved it. The cuts and consequent re-shaping I wouldn't want on disc, but welcome on stage. The singing is not greatly distinguished but feeds into good all-round performances, with an inspired sub-punk Cleopatra from Joan Rodgers. The orchestra plays with spirit for Swiss conductor Samuel Bachli. And although the set requires the singers to be mountaineers and sends them floundering, it makes a point about the piece (unstable characters in an unstable world) and looks stunning. Every scene carries some masterstroke by the designer John Macfarlane whose work here is the stuff for which awards are made.

As for Willy Decker - yes, he takes a risk too many. His ideas are over-busy and abrasive. But his characters do develop through their arias, and there are moments when the action stops, the music breathes, and an alluring theatre of enchantment reigns. It courts controversy, but on looks alone is one of the most brilliantly imagined stagings of the year.

The fame of Glyndebourne's Rake's Progress has always been based on looks: on the David Hockney designs whose cross-hatched drawings in felt-tip colours reverse the normal objectives of theatre design by creating the illusion of two dimensions out of three rather than three from two - which is effectively what Stravinsky's score does, and Auden's libretto. For the current Glyndebourne tour the sets are reconstructed, the originals having been destroyed in a fire. They look as before, only fresher, and still dominate the show - which is nicely sung by a largely ENO cast (gone are the days when the Glyndebourne tour starred young singers straight from the chorus) but without much spirit. Meanwhile, ENO itself has a stylish revival of Nicholas Hytner's clean-cut, glossily post-modern Magic Flute which deliberately contains its spirit and focuses on an intelligent appraisal of Enlightened living, taking care to kill the racist/chauvinist asides in the libretto.

The week's concerts saw the first in a London Sinfonietta birthday series, celebrating 25 years of commissioning which have produced nearly 100 works - variously scored but all exploiting the ensemble-of-soloists principle that the Sinfonietta embodies with such virtuosity. Tuesday's programme spanned the entire history, with an early (1969) commission, the Byzantine splendour of Birtwistle's Verses for Ensembles, alongside Maxwell Davies's Mirror of Whitening Light (1977) and a new piece by Benedict Mason called ']' which didn't deserve such exalted company. Mason's music has a following; but it speaks with the donnish humour (and the cultivated eccentricity) of someone holding his corner on a dull night in the Senior Common Room - an unappealing prospect, here enlivened only by the picturesque aboriginal instruments which the players swung around them, marching through the auditorium and looking thoroughly embarrassed.

More purposefully, the Wexford Festival of forgotten opera began on Thursday on triumphant form, with a production by Stephen Medcalf of Mascagni's

Il Piccolo Marat that exemplified the extraordinary if unpredictable achievements of this charming, crazy, run-on-a-shoestring (and in a shoebox) annual Irish beano. Piccolo Marat is epic verismo: a swashbuckling rescue story in the Reign of Terror which, with Wexford's limited resources, is piu piccolo than Mascagni intended. The surging mob is more like an unruly dinner party. Scale aside, the staging has the depth, texture and conviction you'd associate with a major international house, and performances which compare favourably with Covent Garden.

'Julius Caesar' continues Tues (041-332 9000). Wexford Festival runs all week (010 353-53 22144).

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