CLASSICAL MUSIC / The sailor who fell from grace with the sea: Grimes; Gawain

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WHEN AN opera is called Carmen or Don Giovanni you can usually assume that Carmen or Don Giovanni are what it's about. But not always. Figaro has a hard time holding his ground in the piece that bears his name; and Peter Grimes faces stiff competition from his neighbours, the seaside chorus of the Borough, as well as from the sea itself. But to play Peter Grimes purely as a company piece is, I think, an admission of failure. It needs the focus of a mesmerising anti-hero as the human centre of the storm that rages through the metaphysics of the writing. And it doesn't have one in the new Scottish Opera production that opened in Glasgow on Tuesday.

The Grimes here is Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who has recorded the role (under Haitink, for EMI) but never sung it on stage before. He makes it a real singing role, with bel canto beauty and exceptional refinement in the shaping of single-note phrases ('I live alone, the habit grows') that promises something quite outstanding for the supreme single-note aria, 'Now the Great Bear and Pleiades'. He tends to round out phrases that need more fire - 'Put it where your money is', a line that should spit, syllable by syllable, gets caressed like all the others - but otherwise this is a fine vocal performance.

Where it fails is that it's miserably directed - by Joachim Herz, the anglophile elder statesman of the Berlin Komische Oper - who manages to tell you too much about Grimes for him to be an interesting enigma and not enough for him to have any profile. Broadly speaking, Herz's Grimes is a soft option: a Suffolk simpleton with a touch of Down's Syndrome in the pub scene. He bears no causal responsibility for the deaths of his apprentices (Herz makes a point of placing him centre stage, away from where the second boy falls), and he seems to get on with No 2 quite amiably. So there's one prime source of dramatic tension out of the window - or maybe, down the cliff.

What remains is an ineffectual character who strikes vague fisherman's poses when he ought to be reacting to text and makes no real statement of himself. To be blunt, he is a fake - as is most of what happens in this production. It takes place on an over-designed, toytown set: Grimes's hut looks as though it came in self-assembly units from Habitat. And the world that Herz creates operates on comparable terms, driven by plasterboard emotions.

Of course, Grimes is a complex character, not easy to present. But that's why the director should be careful to extract him from the texture of the piece and make him register. In fairness, Herz begins by doing that: the Prologue plays as though it were a reminiscence, with Grimes summoning his accusers out of his own mind. But thereafter - nothing. Herz somehow expects him to establish a presence in the pub scene with his back to the audience. And he isn't even allowed to rule in absentia in the closing scene, whose chilling power resides in the communal indifference to Grimes's death. Herz remodels it as romance, with a spotlit Ellen Orford being comforted by Balstrode - as though this were her scene and about her failure. It isn't.

That said, Rita Cullis is an impressive Ellen and Russell Smythe's Balstrode is the best all-round performance on the stage: underplayed but nicely observed. The chorus singing is good; and although Richard Armstrong's conducting doesn't drive the rhythms hard enough, there is some strength in the orchestral playing. But if you want a Grimes to lacerate your soul, look elsewhere - and find consolation in the revival of Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain at the Royal Opera House, which hasn't the tragedic grandeur of a Peter Grimes but makes a comparable assault on the sensibilities of its audience through sheer epic magnificence.

Astonishing at its premiere in 1991, Gawain is even better now the longueurs of the end of Act I, and the balancing formalities of the end of Act II, have been cut. The score is tighter and the momentum more determined - with the possible exception of the repeating sequence in Act II where Gawain is seduced three nights running by the Lady Hauptdesert.

But then, repeating sequences are the essence of Birtwistle's work. He always says that his initial ideas for each stage piece are not narrative but formal; and only when the form - the route by which the musical machinery proceeds through time - is determined does he start searching for a story to fit. Gawain has an almost Bergian obsession with formality; and its forms are circular rather than developmental. They do progress from A to B, but on a path that ultimately circuits back to A; and the structure of the opera is an accumulation of these circuits, varying in pace and scale but overlayered like the orbits of some fabulous Renaissance model of the solar system.

Fabulous might sound an odd word for a very formal score, but Gawain isn't clinical. It has a glamorous, prowling massivity that moves like an enormous beast (this opera lends itself to simile) shifting its weight from foot to foot. And although the textures are dense, they feel specific, as opposed to padded, brightened with exotic colouring from instruments such as the cimbalom. It seems, in fact, to have a greater clarity than last time round: partly because the introduction of surtitles (it is, of course, already in English) means that you don't have to strain to catch the words, but equally because the orchestra really has the measure of the score now - and plays superlatively under the baton of Elgar Howarth. Di Trevis's production remains stunning. And the cast, too, is remarkable, led by John Tomlinson's cavern-voiced Green Knight, Francois Le Roux's immaculate Gawain and Marie Angel's made-for-the-part Morgan Le Fay. That two young-fogeyish composers stood and booed them all throughout the curtain calls (having helpfully forewarned the entire British media of their intention to do so) only reinforced the triumph of the evening as much of the remainder of the audience stood to cheer. The fogeys were apparently protesting that Birtwistle is a successful composer while they are not. Spot on.

The BBC Young Musician of the Year competition raised, as always, a few protests about the meaning and virtues of success. And they had, as always, a point. How do you judge a percussionist against a cellist? I'm not sure. But I'm sure that the jury last weekend came to the right decision. It was between percussionist Colin Currie and cellist Natalie Clein (the other three finalists weren't in the same league) and Currie certainly made an impression with a splashy new concerto (commissioned from Errolyn Wallen) that demanded the stamina of an athlete and precision of a surgeon. But Clein, playing the not so splashy Elgar Cello Concerto with individuality, presence and two TV cameras probing her nostrils, was the outstanding musician. She is 17 and destined for great things.

'Grimes', 041-332 9000, Sat; 'Gawain', 071-240 1066, Wed & Fri.

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