CLASSICAL MUSIC / The coasts with the most

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The Independent Culture
MOST OF the Aldeburgh festival actually happens at Snape Maltings, where the concert hall floats like a mirage across the marsh flats and houses one of the best acoustics in Britain. Maltings also has the Britten-Pears School, which runs courses for musicians and organises something at festival time to give the students a platform. This year it was a more- or-less concert performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo, starring Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who is probably the most eminent Orfeo of our time but in this case was conducting - rather reticently, from the side of the stage, while the singers sat in a semicircle that became a semi-acting space. The layout hammered home Orfeo's qualities as an ensemble piece where you can pluck soloists out of the chorus and return them when their roles are finished. We know that Monteverdi wanted another stageable score, Tirsi e Clori, to be done in something like this way, and maybe Orfeo carried similar expectations.

But singers in a semicircle can look like a dentist's waiting room unless there really is an electricity that burns between them. And it didn't burn very brightly here, because Rolfe Johnson was too gentle with it. Beyond the world of choirs and churches, there are few encouraging examples of singer- conductors; and the reason, I suspect, is that singers are instinctive seekers of cantabile. Whatever threatens to disrupt the singing line tends to be suppressed, and in this case it was rhythmic deliberation. Everything came with a soft, lustrous patina and a caressing pliancy that was a paradigm of bel canto and beautiful in a reserved, non-interventionist way. But not invigorating, or sharp enough in the colour-contrasts between the two sound worlds that Orfeo presents: the pastoral idyll of the living and the sombre shadowlands of the dead.

Up to a point this was a period performance, but of music whose requirements are governed more by speculation than by known facts; so some licence is allowable, and Rolfe Johnson took it. He had 20 instruments in his period band to Monteverdi's probable 39, and cast the women's roles with women's voices, not castrati. I doubt that even the most ardent authenticist today would want to hear a male Euridice - still less a male Proserpina when the soprano we were given, Charlene Pauls, was so darkly sensuous. Of the bona fide men, the easily outstanding voice was Martin Houtman's Orfeo, a beautifully cultivated tenor with a smooth, covered tone very like that of Rolfe Johnson himself.

Aldeburgh signed off with Raphael Wallfisch playing Britten's Cello Sonata in Southwold Church (without the pyrotechnics of a Rostropovich but still very accomplished); a piano recital by Stephen Pruslin under the title Fog to Fireworks, more the former than the latter; and the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose collective virtuosity is dazzling but tends to overwhelm the composers it descends on. Mozart's Piano Concerto K595 limped off like a footballer after a stupendous tackle. Impressed but dazed.

Opera in Ireland is sporadic but robust. It breaks out in short, festival seasons that rely on amateur input and tolerance. But some of the most committed, direct productions I've seen have been Irish, and I saw another at Castle Ward which is a sort of Wexford of the North: a tiny theatre built from the stables of a country house near Belfast. Unlike Wexford, it doesn't boldly go into uncharted repertory. But it does cast at strength - as you have to for the bel-canto spectacle of Lucia di Lammermoor - and what it lacks in resources it makes up in imagination. Wexford barely bothers with set changes. Castle Ward, with no fly, no wings, and no backstage that you'd notice, manages amazing transformations. And the vocal standards in Lucia are impressive too. The small scale means that no one has to force the tone; the delicate Lucia of Nicola Sharkey, an Irish soprano with a penetrating top but less developed middle, fills out with a tender radiance - distracted (well, she is mad) but lovely. With solid mainland imports for the male leads (Peter Bronder and Gordon Sandison), a fine Raimondo from Andrew Hammond, and an astonishingly competent chorus of singers who are businessmen or lawyers in their spare time, it was a vibrant and utterly engaging show.