Classical music: Here comes the sham

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The Independent Culture
The Bartered Bride

Glyndebourne, Sussex

Manon Lescaut

Glyndebourne, Sussex

The Consul

Holland Park, London

The epidemic of bride-bartering, which has run riot through the opera houses of Britain in the past year, has reached Glyndebourne. And though Glyndebourne barters more effectively than the Royal Opera did at Christmas (which isn't difficult), it doesn't clinch the deal so well as Opera North did recently.

This Glyndebourne Bartered Bride takes much the same approach as Opera North, updating the action from a folksy far-away-and-long-ago Bohemia to a not-so-picturesque Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. The unchanging set shows a village hall, beery and smoky with the patronage of local lads. Some kind of festival is happening, and the preparations on the stage of the village hall nicely accommodate, in quotes, the traditional folk-dances of Smetana's score, and the circus scene - whose mix of speech and singing is a sandwich of English and Czech, to help you get the jokes.

Alas, the jokes aren't funny. Well, they never are in Bartered Bride. But that's exactly why the Opera North show was so good. It tapped a vein of small-town political humour which could easily have been coarse and dull, but was actually sharp and bright. At Glyndebourne, the gags (non- political) are mostly blunt. And the result is a decent show, but not the thing of wonder we'd all expected from the starry team of Nikolaus Lehnhoff and Tobias Hoheisel.

One thing of genuine interest at Glyndebourne, though, is that this Bride comes with a small but fascinating sting in the tail. Bartered Bride is the story of a scam. A young romantic (Jenik) pulls a fast one on a marriage-broker, gets the girl (Marenka), the money, and the best tunes. But Lehnhoff questions the propriety of all this, and leaves you at the end with an uncertain tableau. Jenik is still doing deals, presumably dodgy. Marenka, who has just taken an unusually fond farewell of his dim brother, notices what's happening. And as the curtain falls, the look of sudden, horrified awareness on her face says it all: my God, I've turned down someone decent, and I'm marrying a spiv.

The spiv in question is played by Kim Begley, with a swagger and a hardness in the vocal tone which is presumably what Lehnhoff asked for, but doesn't make Begley too attractive. Solveig Kringelborn's Marenka has a fleshed-out fullness, sung with an assertive presence and a clean sound. And with stylish understatement from Jonathan Veira's Kecal, plus a notable British debut from Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Vasek it's a commendable cast. Commendably conducted, too, by Jiri Kout, who delivers the sharp, upfront rhythmic emphasis of Smetana's dance numbers, and gets pungent playing from the LPO. But the show is stolen, inevitably, by the dog that comes on in the circus scene and jumps through hoops. It's always the same. You could have Pavarotti and the Queen Mother on stage, in duet. But introduce a small dog and the audience won't notice them.

Manon Lescaut could have done with some canine life - or indeed, life of any vaguely animal kind - when it opened a couple of years ago to a cool critical response. It was one of Graham Vick's thrift shows, stripped so clean of surface detail - outside a spot of oddly isolated campery in the bedroom scene - that there was nothing left to convince you of the worth of the piece. And with Manon Lescaut you do need convincing. As Puccini tells the story, is there anything alluring in the characters? I think not. Geronte is an old lecher; Lescaut a young opportunist; Des Grieux is a fool; and Manon herself is just a tart - unless she comes wreathed in the radiance of a great soprano who really knows how to sell the Eternal Feminine and still follow Puccini's repeated demand in the score for simplicita. It isn't easy. It defeated Callas, who recorded the role but never attempted it on stage. And it certainly defeated Adina Nitescu, the young Romanian who tried at Glyndebourne in 1997.

That Nitescu had been booked again for the revival wasn't thrilling news. But last weekend - still looking like a young, plump, slightly dazed Kiri Te Kanawa - she had improved. Less weight, more charm, and some remarkably warm, luscious singing in Acts 2 and 3. I almost liked her. And I almost liked the whole show - which remains imprisoned in an empty, custard- yellow box of a set. I certainly liked the new Des Grieux, Mikhail Dawidoff, and new conductor, Dietfried Bernet, whose tempi are less strict than Eliot Gardiner's last time round and all the better for it. The melody flowed. The LPO played well. It was an unexpected pleasure.

As was the performance of Menotti's The Consul which opened at Holland Park on Tuesday. Two years ago I wrote a piece on this page pleading for reconsideration of the Menotti operas, which had passed completely out of fashion here in Britain. Twelve months ago, I reviewed a Spoleto Festival production of The Consul - one of the most wickedly neglected stage-works of the past half-century - and challenged ENO to take another look at it. The challenge passed unheeded. But in recent months there have been two fringe productions of Menotti's Vanessa in London. And now Holland Park has The Consul - not, alas, with Susan Bullock (who sang the lead at Spoleto and on the associated Chandos recording) or a big enough orchestra, but with a compactly powerful staging by no less a personage than Simon Callow. In fact, it's far and away the best thing I've ever seen at Holland Park, where standards of production are not high.

The Consul is a nightmare-thriller of an opera, set in a police state where the central character, Magda, is trying to flee the country and in need of a visa from the unseen and unheard consul. It begins like Tosca, with Magda's fugitive husband bursting on to the stage, pursued by agents, and ends like Madam Butterfly with her driven to suicide. And yes, it does feel like Puccinian verismo, albeit with contemporary touches and a fantasy element that sits awkwardly beside the thriller tension.

But mostly this is music-theatre of unnerving power - with a climactic Act 2 aria that stops the show, your heart, and your disbelief. Menotti has (or had, in 1950 when the piece was written) an instinctive feel for high suspense, and what he created in The Consul is Hitchcock with recitatives. At Holland Park they're not so well sung, and I wish Naomi Harvey's Magda had the vocal weight to make that Act 2 aria really tell. But she can act - as can the rest of the cast, who are marshalled by Callow into a punchy ensemble. With a Vorticist-style set design that mounts the two alternating locales - Magda's home and the consul's office - back- to-back on a revolve, it looks impressive too. It would look even better if Holland Park made some small effort to black out the buildings behind, but that's the problem with this open-to-the-elements venue. You can never forget where you are. And where you are is rarely relevant, or helpful, to the show.

`Bartered Bride': to 29 August; `Manon Lescaut': to 20 August. Both at Glyndebourne (01273 813813)