CLASSICAL MUSIC / Slow-motion Tosca stretches a point

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The Independent Culture
WHEN the American musicologist Joseph Kerman called Tosca a 'shabby little shocker', one of the qualities he chose to commemorate was its size. Little. Tosca is essentially a short, sharp domestic drama, aggrandised by a chorus for the Act I curtain but otherwise concisely packaged. So it's quite an achievement that the new WNO Tosca on its opening night managed to start at 7.15 and not end until 10.50 - partly because it took so long to change the sets but also because the opera was directed (by Michael Blakemore) and conducted (by Carlo Rizzi) as something like slow-motion playback. Analytical but ponderous. Triple-time figures such as the Act I choirboys' chorus metamorphosed into luscious Viennese waltzes, and characters sauntered about as though they had all the time in the world (which, in a sense, they had).

Apart from the manicured menace of Peter Sidhom's Scarpia, and Andrew Shore's sacristan, done with just the touch of resentful camp that quasi-clerics perfect, the cast was not strong. Suzanne Murphy makes heavy weather of the title role; and Maurizio Saltarin is a Cavaradossi who can act (just about) and sing (quite well) but not at the same time. When his music starts, his limited attempts at characterisation stop, with both feet rooted to the ground and eyes fixed doggedly on the conductor's beat. And come what may - love, torture, execution, revolution - nothing moves him. I thought at first it might have been a stab at aristocratic indifference; but no, it was just brain-dead singing.

This wasn't the cast WNO had meant us to see on opening night, and easing in replacements can't have been helped by the fact that Michael Blakemore, distinguished as he is in straight theatre, was working in opera for the first time. He seems to have decided that opera is about big, oppressive gestures - so the sets (otherwise conventional) feature giant artefacts, and critical items such as the knife that finishes off Scarpia are all but spotlit. There are some original details: Scarpia throwing cushions on the floor as a sexual imperative to Tosca, and some business on the battlements that makes it less odd for the firing squad to shoot Cavaradossi and march off, leaving him where he falls. But I suspect that Mr Blakemore underestimated the drag that music exercises on the pace of theatre, and how hard you have to pedal just to keep the apparatus on the road.

Slow speeds were the issue in Nigel Kennedy's performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto on Tuesday - with Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic at the South Bank. This was a showcase concert for Nige's big record release for 1992, to be issued on 9 November. And no doubt it will bring a new audience to the work. But what they hear will be a maverick reading that exaggerates its pastoral qualities into New Age vagueness, floating through a drugged hippy daze that seeps from the middle to the outer movements and gives scant regard to the fact that the opening score direction is allegro.

My other reservations are a sometimes harsh tone and a dubious cadenza (Kennedy's own) in the last movement which infiltrates a kind of Celtic jazz dirge, totally at variance with the tonal context: the sound equivalent of tacking a Sixties storm porch on to a Regency town house. But that said, the playing was committed, intelligent, characterful, and however perverse the presentation, I think that Beethoven will survive it. At the first performance of this concerto, in 1806, it was thought to be too long and was divided in two by a sonata played on one string with the instrument held upside down. It was the soloist's creation and beside it Kennedy's perversity is modest.

For the record, Nige has grown a beard and is evidently cultivating the appearance of a garden gnome. On the platform he wore Kicker boots with odd socks. He told me that the rumours of his retirement from large-scale concerts are more or less true. He does not plan to tour the Beethoven, or to play any more repertory concertos. Instead, he's started up a string quartet, which we will hear on disc in due course.

Glyndebourne is a gaping hole in the ground at the moment but it has never had a higher export profile, with three touring operas at Sadler's Wells and its triumphant Trevor Nunn production of Porgy and Bess just opened at Covent Garden. The potential problem in this transfer was scale. Glyndebourne is/was a tiny stage. Covent Garden is big. And it's true that vocal detail is lost because the voices can't sustain their initial attack. Some of the show-stopping numbers, as a result, don't quite stop the show.

But the enduring quality of this Porgy is a company spirit that does fill the house, and sees it through the variable intensity of Gershwin's score. Porgy has sublime melodies but often third-rate link material. This production leaves nothing out, and runs for four hours, longer than the New York premiere in 1935, which made substantial cuts. There's something to be said for them - particularly in the opening Jasbo Brown scene which is musicologically interesting (proving that the culture of the Deep South is less important to the score than that of the New York melting- pot) but dramatically weak. Trevor Nunn resuscitates it as a ghostly mime but doesn't save it.

Otherwise, though, it's a powerful and moving show. Cynthia Haymon and Cynthia Clarey are outstanding in the female leads, and Willard White, even if he lacks ideal lyricism and top notes, is a Porgy of tremendous dignity and presence. The Covent Garden orchestra plays with authentic (and unusual) panache for the conductor Andrew Litton.

'Tosca': Bristol Hippodrome, Tues and Fri (0272 299444); 'Porgy': Tues and Sat (071-240 1066).

(Photograph omitted)

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