Classical Music; Mystery Morse couldn't decode

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VIENNA has always been a West- ern city worryingly on the threshold of the East - which in modern times has meant Russia but was once the Ottoman Empire. So Turko-Moorish fantasies - largely about Westerners in harems - feature significantly in Viennese opera of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Mozart's Die Entfuhrung is the famous example. But there were others, and this year's Maggio Musicale - the big Florentine music festival that runs, in defiance of its name, through June - has two prize collectors' items programmed side by side as part of a German Romantic theme.

The first is Mozart's Zaide, written at the tender age of 23 and a preparatory exercise for Die Entfuhrung, inasmuch as the story involves an escape from the harem and a buffo bass called Osmin. But the score was never finished, leaving music history with a problem. What to do with it? Theatrically, Zaide isn't viable: we don't even know how the story ends because there's no complete libretto. But the music is exquisite, with a purer lyricism than Entfuhrung, and needs some kind of a performing context in which to deliver its potential.

The Maggio's answer has been to commission extra music from Luciano Berio - not to complete the piece, but to enlarge its enigmatic qualities into what Berio calls "un mistero mozartiano". And if that sounds like something for Inspector Morse, it's actually Italian cultural pretension at its worst. What you get are free-stand- ing musical inserts of cinematic, rather glamorous, electronically enhanced orchestral music accompanying stage mimes that depict the "quest" for Zaide. It's tedious, badly presented, badly sung, and the best I can say for the orchestra is that they manage the cross-cutting between classical and con- temporary sound worlds without undue trouble over period style.

The Maggio's more worthwhile curiosity is Fierrabras, the Ritter-Romantisch opera Schubert composed for Vienna in 1822 when the vogue for such things had passed and audiences only wanted Rossini. As a result it was never staged, has hardly been seen since, and is dismissed as epic theatre from a composer better suited to the salon. From the performance in Florence I'd say this view is not entirely wrong. Luca Ronconi, the producer, seems to agree, in that he stages everything as lieder writ large. The heroic narrative of medieval Christian knights fighting the Moors becomes a fireside tale told in Biedermeier drawing-rooms. And when the Moors come a-rampaging, they too are creatures of the Biedermeier imagination: golliwogs (political correctness hasn't made it yet to Italy) led by a prince, the eponymous Fierrabras, who bears a strong resemblance to Al Jolson.

It all feels like a great shrug of the shoulders: Signor Ronconi saying: "What do you expect me to do with this material?" And I sympathise. Schubert's genius wasn't operatic, and his score is ponderous, with no dramatic tension, no response in pace or energy to the events on stage. But oh, its beauty is beguiling. For lyric charm alone it was worth sitting through this long piece (curtain down at midnight), impressively played by the Maggio orchestra under Semyon Bychkov, and wonderfully sung by a largely central-European cast. Joanna Kozlowska and Katia Lytting were sopranos of quality; Stefan Margita's Fierrabras had a typically Czech rawness but was clear, transparent and exciting; while Rainer Trost as the knightly love-interest was youthful, ardent and the sort of personality that lights up the stage. In all, a first-rate cast and - not being big names - proof that the Maggio's talent scouts are earning their lire.

Back in Britain, the opera season at Garsington Manor is under seige by its neighbours, who do not care for the idea of a mini-Glyndebourne on their doorstep. An acoustic wall has risen round the garden, it's everybody out before 11, and all arrivals/departures are monitored by council officials and sour-faced couples at their garden gates with notepads. You feel as though you're in a Western embassy in Soviet Russia: for a few nights of Haydn on a comparatively isolated country property, it's absurd. But Leonard Ing- rams, Garsington's proprietor, is not the sort to wither under pressure. His new production of Haydn's La Fedelta Premiata includes a robust parody of his neighbours as rustic philistines - which won't improve things but is funny in a shooting-from-the-hip way.

The director is David Pountney (every year the names at Gar- sington get grander), who takes Fedelta's entirely frivolous text as licence for a romp in doubtful taste. Purists with long memories will sigh for the decorously arcadian Glyndebourne staging of 1979. But at least Pountney's jokes work; and there's something to be said for his idea of delivering the text in a macaronic mixture of English and Italian (though it would have been even better, in a little-known piece like this, to ditch the Italian altogether). The cast is capable (Janis Kelly, Neill Archer, Sara Fulgoni); the orchestra (an extended Guildhall String Ensemble) excellent under conductor Wasfi Kani, with a finely embellished harpsichord continuo from Nicholas Bosworth. That the show is stolen by a troupe of nearly-naked living statues is a bonus, but unfair.

'La Fedelta Premiata': GarsingtonManor, 0186 536 1636, continues tonight, 2, 5 & 9 July.