CLASSICAL MUSIC : Room for a world view

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I DON'T suppose Wilhelm Furtwangler's many, mostly illegitimate, children ever asked him what he did in the war, but the answer would have been: "I made music." It's the answer he gives in Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides at the Criterion, Piccadilly, which presents as fascinating a debate on the role of the artist in society as I've witnessed this side of 3am after a heavy supper. Furtwangler, arguably the greatest conductor of his time, has survived the Third Reich by passive acquiescence. Called to account, he pleads that his allegiance is not to politics but to music, which carries its own moral force. A performance of Beethoven's Ninth, he says, is the most vital negation of the spirit of Buchenwald there could be; and I'm sure we'd all like to believe him, if we didn't know that howitzers are more efficient.

But then, the idea of the artist as a Thing Apart, with different responsibilities from the rest of us, has become discredited. We live in an age of social accountability, where composers are expected to confront a world whose ills have not proved terribly susceptible to Beethoven. There have been two such confrontations running in the current Almeida Opera season. The first, Giorgio Battistelli's Experimentum Mundi, isn't actually an opera so much as a staged percussion symphony, featuring the sounds of workmen orchestrated out of utilitarian randomness into artistic order. The idea, of course, is Cageian - that everything is capable of being music - but it out-Cages Cage in that these workmen are real. Yes, genuine Italian bricklayers, knife-grinders, stone-breakers ... performing their trades on-stage before an admiring audience. The whole thing treads a thin line between celebrating the Common Man and patronising him. But that said, the complexity of Battistelli's writing asks a lot from these non-musicians, and they respond with cherishable seriousness of purpose, reading from scores which it apparently took a year to teach them. Any reservations about the pretentiousness of the exercise are silenced by the sense of achievement on their faces when they take their bow - even the pastry-cook, whose contribution to the hour of hammering and crashing was limited, but who cracked eggs with virtuosic precision.

The other example of worldly art at the Almeida is East and West, a new opera by Ian McQueen about racial tension, in which a nice-but-confused young man turns skinhead and becomes involved with attacks on his Bosnian refugee neighbours. If you've heard The Archers recently you'll know the story; but you'll know the story anyway because East and West mines every cliche in the book of liberal conscience, worthily intended but with dire results. The score has theatre sense and pulls off one or two big numbers, but it speaks in cartoon terms, with bubble captions. In its favour there's a striking staging (Jonathan Moore) and strong singing from a cast that struggles to be working-class (Fiona Kimm's Bosnian housewife is like the Duchess of Kent on speed). But ultimately it endorses a remark by the late Martin Cooper in Faber's new compendium of criticism, The Attentive Listener. Social polemic, says Cooper, is best accommodated by the "little" music of cabaret and revue. With the "big" music of symphony and opera it paradoxically breeds trivia.

Placido Domingo took over the lead in Stiffelio at Covent Garden this week and stalls seat-prices promptly leapt to pounds 197, raising the inevitable question: is he worth it? The answer, I fear, is no - not because there's anything materially wrong with the performance, but because it just isn't special enough. The voice is pure, firm, focused and the singing musically intelligent. The sense of theatre is acute, intense; and, having lost some weight, he moves well. But you could say this of many a singer. With Domingo at his best there used to be more: a fruity, full-voiced charge and resonance that seems to have diminished in its impact. Last time round, Carreras made an altogether stronger statement.

More modestly, there were two cut-down Mozart operas to see this week. One was a Don Giovanni playing in the Chichester Festivities with a reduced orchestration (one instrument to a part, no trombones), no chorus, and a tiny stage area that required the singers to address an audience on two sides and behave like dervishes, whirling on the spot. In the circumstances the artists - members of Bernini Opera - did pretty well and, I hope, pleased their sponsors, P&O.

The other Mozart was the latest, and last, in a series of the composer's mature operas which John Eliot Gardiner has been presenting over the past five years. Each production has originated abroad and been designed for touring, which means travelling light. And the new Die Zauberflote, which opened at the QEH on Wednesday, travels lightest of all in that it has no sets. All scenic needs are supplied by the dance company Pilobolus who transform themselves into temple doorways, animals, water and fire - whatever Mozart asks for - by knotting their bodies into a sort of human macrame. This was wonderfully imaginative, slightly distracting (I kept thinking what inventive sex lives they must lead), but good for momentum in that, with nothing to shift, each scene flows seamlessly into the next.

The "lightness of being" in this Zauberflote becomes less bearable, though, when you find it encompasses the humour and the music, which are wonderfully refined but with their substance undervalued. Precious moments that should bathe in radiance float past and barely register. But that said, there is some delicious if, er, lightweight singing from a largely German cast. Michael Schade's Tamino is youthfully fresh and "artless", Christiane Oelze's Pamina likewise; Cynthia Sieden's Queen of the Night blurs her coloratura but delivers top Fs with sufficient ease to make them musical; and Gerald Finley is the most engaging Papageno you could ask for - not so much an earth-man as an operatic Hugh Grant radiating bashful charm. With so much going for it, why this Zauberflote never equals the sum of its parts is hard to say. But lack of ballast is a factor.