CLASSICAL MUSIC / Please, Mr Alden, just listen to the score

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I'VE yet to find a secondhand bookshop without a copy of the Musical Companion of 1934 - it must have had a massive print- run - and the section on opera is a telling record of its time. Handel is dispatched in half a sentence: '. . . there has been a great revival of Handel's operas in Germany,' writes Edward Dent, 'although their vogue is now already over, and they have been returned once more to our category of museum pieces.'

Sixty years later, Dent would have been surprised to find the museum broken open and Handel back in business with box-office hits like ENO's Xerxes. But the Handel re-revival is still a cautious affair, afflicted by doubt that his operas really make good theatre and the problem of casting castrato roles in an age when we no longer knife our singers, except verbally. Every time a 'new' Handel opera emerges, we still have occasion to gasp with amazement at how wonderful, workable and not boring it can be. And there was due amazement this week when ENO unveiled its new Ariodante, a remarkable though uneasy collaboration between David Alden, the bad boy of modern opera theatre, and Nicholas McGegan, the golden boy of period performance.

Musically it outclasses almost everything ENO has attempted in the past, not-so-brilliant season, with a cast of international quality. Ann Murray in yet another of her many trouser roles (she's starting to walk like John Wayne) literally stops the show with Ariodante's great lament 'Scherza infida': I have never heard her sing so well, with an extraordinary depth of feeling justifying an unusually broad pace. Amanda Roocroft could do with better articulation but brings a beautifully burnished tone to Ginevra. And Christopher Robson makes an exquisite, low-camp villain of the castrato Polinesso - a performance of genius that will be hard to match when this production goes to WNO next year and the role is sex-changed from a countertenor to a mezzo.

Above all, it's a triumph for McGegan, the least scholarly of scholar-conductors, who manages to combine musical integrity and dramatic flair without compromising either. Ariodante is long - four hours including intervals - and the temptation to cut is great: especially in the ballets which Handel inserted for the famous dancer who was his chief box-office attraction in 1734. But McGegan cuts nothing except repeats; and although his speeds are slow for a period stylist, they don't drag. He gets gloriously light, crisp textures from the ENO orchestra and full value from the unconventional shock-tactics of the score - especially the bizarrely abrupt end to Act II, where the prima donna is silent through the ballet then gets up to sing just a few lines of truncated recitative before the lights go out - barely believable but in the score. McGegan, although British, lives in and works out of America; but it was announced this week that he is to be principal guest conductor of Scottish Opera. Judging from Ariodante, Scotland has something to look forward to.

As for the production, it isn't standard rough-hewn Alden. There are no lavatorial sets, bin- liner costumes or naked light bulbs (largely because ENO turned down the proposals of Alden's first-choice designer) but instead a rather chic world gravitating between Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Dynasty (in which Christopher Robson makes a fine Joan Collins). Alden's light bulbs are upgraded into chandeliers. His meaningfully overturned chairs are Louis Quinze or something like it. That Ariodante actually belongs in the legendary past of Scotland is no matter: you wouldn't come to this sort of show expecting kilts.

But you might expect something that tells the same story as the music; and you don't get it. The story of Ariodante is domestic and, for its period, simple. There is no magic, no fantasy: just the template opera plot of a frustrated marriage where events keep the lovers apart until they have passed through some crisis that empowers them to build their relationship anew, on more solid ground than sighs and stolen kisses. The three acts have a clear dramatic contour - joy, despair, joy - and the score defines its peaks and troughs.

But Alden is a director who knows better than the score. When the music dances with pre- matrimonial pleasure at the end of Act I, Alden's production darkly tells the audience it will end in tears. The same thing happens in the lieto fine of Act III: on comes a troupe of lunatic refugees from the bedlam scene in The Rake's Progress to tell you there's no happy ending after all - just the bruised memory of events which, Alden has decided, witness the abuse of women.

Now this is interesting. It makes engrossing theatre and looks good on stage. But it's the wrong opera - which is to say, the opera Alden wanted to direct but not the opera Handel wrote; and although such conflicts are potentially invigorating when a piece is known and tired from over-exposure, it's a confounding arrogance in a rarity like Ariodante where the fundamentals of the piece are unfamiliar. Alden's killer instincts would be better trained on La Boheme and Madam Butterfly.

That said, the overall achievement of Ariodante eclipsed the rest of the week's musical agenda. Franz Welser-Most conducted another of his underwhelming Alternative Vienna concerts at the Festival Hall, programming H K Gruber's pleasing, silly and pointless Frankenstein]] alongside Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. The juxtaposition requires no comment and the LPO's performance wasn't memorable, although the Mahler was more considered than the awful Mahler 9 they did the other week.

On Thursday at the Festival Hall, the BBC SO and Chorus under Simon Joly gave a comparably indifferent premiere of a cantata by Gavin Bryars called The War in Heaven. Half the text was in seventh-century Northumbrian, the rest in 20th-century American, and neither made a big impression. But it was big piece, floating large forces in a flood plain of English pastoral minimalism that needed stronger hands than Joly's to provide a real sense of direction. As it was, it meandered luxuriantly like fudge, opening out to the odd striking sonority but otherwise a quarter- hour too long.

'Ariodante' continues Wed and Fri (071-836 3161).

(Photograph omitted)