CLASSICAL MUSIC / Jenufa refuses to flower for ENO: Jenufa - ENO; The Lighthouse - Oxford Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
APART from Mahler, there can't be many composers more conclusively in from the cold than Leos Janacek. It wasn't long ago that Ernest Newman, whose opinion counted for something, dismissed him as amateur; now he has the status of a central figure in the modern opera repertory. Especially in Britain, where the advocacy of Charles Mackerras, the scholarship of John Tyrrell and the performing tradition of companies like ENO have shown the world what Janacek can do.

But ENO, strangely, has never staged Jenufa, which is the rubicon of the Janacek catalogue: the point of transition where the folk-rusticity of Czech nationalism is recycled into something leaner and more abstract. So the ENO production that opened on Wednesday was an event. It promised some fresh editing work on the score, a new role for Josephine Barstow as the Kostelnicka, and the mainstream London opera debut of Lucy Bailey, a director whose past work has been risky, unpredictable, but sometimes strikingly effective.

I wish I could report a great success for all these promising ingredients, but on Thursday it was a cake that hadn't yet risen: short on tension, musicality (another undistinguished showing from Sian Edwards, who conducts) and good performances. Ms Barstow - a commanding actress at her best - is sympathetic and in decent voice, but steeped in silent- movie mannerism, stalking round the stage with the robotic stiffness of a clockwork spider. Susan Bullock's Jenufa is disappointing too: she blossoms vocally toward the end, but takes too long getting there.

On the other hand, and despite generally poor diction, there is a strong Steva from David Maxwell Anderson, a considered Laca from Kim Begley, and, although the production has its problems - a matter, perhaps, of Lucy Bailey's background in intimate theatre, which is no preparation for playing traffic cop to a chorus - it does have a view of the piece. Jenufa, as I've said, is transitional: because it was written over a long time-span, the journey from curtain up to curtain down is a journey through Janacek's creative life. Act I is almost number opera and decorative, Acts II and III are more concisely modernist, edging towards the way the later Janacek trims his stage pictures with disregard for conventional 'finish' and focus. And this staging catches something of that hybrid nature. The visual style is low-key but precise, the design (Simon Vincenzi) unspecifically 20th century and clean-cut, and there is just one big gesture - a plain front-cloth that lifts like a garage door, up and over, to become a canopy across the action. First time round, it opens on a stage-wide field of yellow flowers, too obviously plastic (they rattle) but an impressive prop for the chorus to maraud through on their initial entrance. And Ms Bailey has the right idea about the chorus: they're dispensible. They do their business and she gets them off, unceremoniously and rather brutally - an operatic ethnic cleansing - but with clear intent to shift the audience's attention to the central characters. Whatever the production's teething troubles, it doesn't make the mistake Covent Garden's recent Katya Kabanova made of turning Janacek into a Broadway epic.

Peter Maxwell Davies's opera The Lighthouse is an even tighter piece: a cast of three, an orchestra of 12, and a musical language of brilliantly resourceful precision that tells the Hitchcockian story of a lighthouse crew who fall prey to the secrets of their past lives. It was one of the most successful touring pieces of the old Fires of London, and when the Fires closed down and passed its props and repertory on to Music Theatre Wales, it was inevitable that MTW would sooner or later do a Lighthouse of its own.

This week it arrived, very impressively, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The set, a skeletal lighthouse complete with rotating lamp, is new; the costumes resurrected; and the production (by Michael McCarthy) better than anything I remember from the Fires, whose theatrical sophistication never quite lived up to its musicianship. Diction is again poor, but Henry Herford gets especial credit for circumventing the extreme unlikelihood that he was ever, in his past, a Gorbals murderer.

Felix Apprahamian's past won't, I imagine, have been quite so colourful. But he has been a distinguished music critic for long enough to be an icon of the business (the only critic I know who actually looks like one) and a human archive of fascinating, first-hand information on great figures long dead. Last weekend the Nash Ensemble celebrated his 80th birthday with a concert at the Wigmore Hall, alluringly all-French and with the expanded chamber version of Faure's song cycle La Bonne Chanson as a centrepiece. Several years ago the Nash recorded La Bonne Chanson with Sarah Walker for CRD, and it remains (I think) one of the most transcendently effective performances it has ever committed to disc. Its Wigmore Chanson was sung by Francois Le Roux, who hasn't quite the lift or the luxuriant intensity to float the top lines of a setting like 'La lune blanche' but is still a wonderfully expressive artist with a winning personality and that peculiarly French export, vocal chic.

When the artistic director of the Nash Ensemble, Amelia Freedman, ran the Bath Festival it was a annual treasury of intelligent chamber-music programming. But she left last year, and now the festival profile is more commercial, less imaginative, less interesting. You have to dig deep for the odd bauble. But in Bath last week, I did find something in the glistening dynamism of the Polish Chamber Orchestra, whose sculpted, strongly-contoured playing transformed what looked on paper a pretty standard concert. A choral recital by Bath Camerata was the opposite: better on paper than it turned out. But at least the Camerata attempted some new works. One was Tiananmen, a musical narrative by Peter Dickinson that in its clean, spare way sounded grateful to sing and a good piece for choirs of average ability. The other was Out of the Ruins by Michael Nyman, another disaster scenario (the 1988 Armenian earthquake) and an excursion into Arvo Part country with a long (too long) stretch of simple chordal progressions over a repeating ground bass. As the background music to a film, it may have worked. As foreground music in a concert, no.

'Jenufa': ENO, 071-836 3161, continues Wed & Fri. 'The Lighthouse': Oxford Playhouse, 0865 798600, tonight.

(Photograph omitted)

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