CLASSICAL MUSIC / The ideal one-night stand

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SOMEONE in a position to know once told me that when the St Petersburg Philharmonic play on home ground they make just enough roubles to pay for the electric lighting in the hall. And such stories explain why Russian artists are now persistently on money-making Western tours; why the Kirov Opera is currently resident in France; and why the same company paid an awayday visit to the Barbican last Monday for a single performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. They travelled on a schedule - touchdown early afternoon, departure straight after the show - from which no one was entitled to expect profound results; and the look of their male soloists was not promising. Lined up in dubious DJs like night-club bouncers from the back streets of Sebastopol, they seemed to model the off-hand professional indifference of singers who deliver songs like pizzas.

But looks deceive. What they in fact delivered in these less than favourable circumstances was the musical event not merely of the week, but possibly the whole year: an extraordinary performance of innate and effortless musicianship; of thrilling voices with the penetrative, resinous intensity that only Russians (and related Slavs) produce; of lusciously upholstered playing from the Kirov orchestra; and, overall, of cultivation, steeped in the tradition of the writing.

Not that Valery Gergiev, the Kirov's Principal Conductor, is much of a traditionalist. Far from it, he has revolutionised the sound of Russian opera, retaining its grandeur but refining and clarifying the colour mix. In his hands it has become a sleekly agile product, with more focused voices. And chief among them is his star soprano Galina Gorchakova who on Monday delivered the central role, Fevronia, with beguiling, cream-toned eloquence: the purest, loveliest, most naturally expressive singing you could hope to hear.

Beside her was a comparably outstanding tenor, Vladimir Galusin, whose importunate but firm directness features on the Kirov's handsome new recording (just out from Philips) of Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko. And as the first issue in a projected Kirov/Rimsky cycle on CD it deserves to be feted; because I can think of few other composers so grotesquely undervalued. Kitezh, for example, has hardly ever been done in Britain, falling foul of the received wisdom that its composer was a gifted craftsman, dextrous orchestrator, but without the imaginative compass of compatriots such as Borodin and Musorgsky. And it's true that Kitezh is uneven, and decorative, smoothing the dramatic contours of its story into gently undulating song-lines. But for all that, it is a captivating score, replete with Russian Wagnerisms redefined in lighter, brighter vividness of colour. I was deeply touched by how the simple, spiritual, patriotic narrative is told, and long to see it staged. We need a Rimsky festival in Britain; preferably with the Kirov in a long-term residency. If they were invited I don't think they'd turn us down.

Compared with the Kirov Kitezh, Covent Garden's new Traviata only merits two cheers and both of them for Angela Gheorghiu, the young Romanian soprano whose Violetta is delectably fragile: a yielding gift to the fantasies of every heterosexual male in the audience, with a central-European shake to the voice that manages to decorate rather than destroy its charm.

The rest of the cast is good but not outstanding: a tight, trim, focused but inhibited Alfredo from Frank Lopardo and a solid but withdrawn Germont Pere (inhibition runs in this family) from Leo Nucci. Sir Georg Solti conducts with spidery precision but a constitutional incapacity for sustained legato. The production - by Richard Eyre, artistic director of the National Theatre, making his opera debut - is cautious: tastefully restrained, occasionally allowing his characters to ``notice'' the music that surrounds their lives and react to its presence but otherwise conventional. Emotions do not run high, except into passing silliness: Violetta does a frienzied lap of honour of the stage before she dies. And Bob Crowley's big, bland sets don't justify the time it takes to change them. Traviata runs to a compacted timescale. It will not survive two intervals that on the first night totalled 80 minutes.

When Elgar died in 1934 he was juggling with two projects: a symphony and an opera, The Spanish Lady, which were both left incomplete and accordingly challenge musicologists to wonder what they might have been. Saving the intervention of Rosemary Brown, the medium in touch with dead composers, we shall never know. But Percy Young, a distinguished Elgarian, has had a go at completing the opera, and the result was staged in Cambridge last weekend by students from the University Opera Club. It was an interesting experiment, done as part of this year's Cambridge Elgar Festival with a creditable cast and orchestra conducted by William Lacey. But I'm not sure how great a service it was to Elgar. What we heard was cloned from a tiny amount of surviving material that Elgar intended for an opera grand enough to ``out-Meistersinger Die Meistersinger'': his words and some hope. Nothing in Elgar's output recommends him as a stage composer, still less this reconstruction. Apart from period pastiche (the plot is Ben Jonson) it makes almost no musical response to the dramatic action, which in any case is confused. Whatever was going on (answers on a postcard) I enjoyed its exuberance and thought the odd gem of a number - including an engaging love duet - justified the exercise. But exercise it was. Viable opera it wasn't.

The export potential of British singers has so increased in recent years that it's not uncommon to find a soprano like Jane Eaglen commuting between Ariadnes at ENO and Walkures at La Scala. But there is traffic in administrators too; and earlier this year Elaine Padmore, the polymath singer, broadcaster, presiding genius of Wexford and intrepid talent-finder, took charge of the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. It was an interesting appointment and came at a critical time for a company which has largely been overshadowed by the international prestige of its sister, the Royal Danish Ballet. Padmore's job has been to open things out and upgrade the standard with guest voices: to turn an ENO into a Covent Garden. And British audiences will sample the change next year when the Danish Opera visits the Royal Opera with a new production of Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges - directed by the celebrated Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt with sets by British designer Joe Vanek.

I saw this Three Oranges in Copenhagen last week under the (British again) conductor Jan Latham-Koenig. It was fun, bold, beautiful to watch, with some impressive voices (including the Cardiff Singer of the World, Inge Dam-Jensen) and, as you'd expect from Flindt, vigorously animated. It also offered something I have never seen before in opera: an accomplished tenor (Jorgen Ole Borch, the Truffaldino) who was also a trained, Danish Ballet, dancer with the breath control to turn a somersault and sing a perfect line at more or less the same time. Given the sedentary disposition of some of our more famous tenors, There should be a run on tickets for this novelty alone when Oranges arrives in London.

'Traviata' continues for five more performances, and is sold out except for 65 seats for sale on the day (071-304 4000); the production is broadcast on BBC2 and Radio 3 on Thurs, 7.30-11pm. The Royal Danish Opera visits London next September.

(Photograph omitted)