Classical Music: When Rome was a state of undress

Catena d'Adone Tiroler Landestheater Innsbruck, Austria Three Choirs Festival Worcester
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The Independent Culture
It has been a long time since the world of music revolved around Austria. But the land of Mozart still maintains the world's most stylish festival at Salzburg, run though it is by a Belgian, Gerard Mortier. Higher up the snowline, Austria also has one of the world's most serious festivals at Innsbruck, run though that is by another Belgian, Rene Jacobs.

Jacobs is the countertenor-turned-conductor who ranks among the pioneers of period performance in mainland Europe. That British audiences barely knew his name until his Harmonia Mundi recording of Giulio Cesare swept the awards circuit in the early 1990s says more about us than about him. In Europe he's a major force. As is his festival at Innsbruck, which is something else the British barely know about.

Innsbruck is wholly given over to "old" music - although Jacobs likes to say that what he programmes isn't old at all. It's new. In other words it's so obscure it hasn't been performed in modern times. By that definition there has been a profoundly new opera at the heart of this year's festival: La Catena d'Adone by Domenico Mazzochi. Mazzochi was a priest as well as a composer, active in early 17th-century Rome; and his piece - The Chain of Adonis - is the earliest known Roman opera to survive. It would originally have played to an audience of clerics in the Vatican, which is odd, given that its subject matter of two women squabbling for the favour (ie body) of Adonis is overtly sexual. But then there were, apparently, some 400 prostitutes dedicated to divine service at the Vatican during the 1620s; and this production plays with that idea by presenting most of the cast, male or female, as Roman cardinals in states of undress.

The result is something between Francis Bacon and Fellini: not exactly "period". But then, Jacobs's line on periodicity is pretty selective. So, dismissing the wealth of baroque interiors available in Innsbruck, Catena d'Adone played at the Tiroler Landestheater (a quietly radical house, now run by Birgitte Fassbaender) on modernist sets that look like the Hayward Gallery with confessionals. All the scholarship has gone into what you hear, not what you see.

And what you hear - briskly conducted by one of Jacobs's disciples, Konrad Junghanel - is something of a challenge: two-and-a-half unbroken hours (no interval) of severe, sub-Monteverdian recitative, enlivened only by the odd madrigal and orchestral intermezzo. It's a test of staying power. But there are strong performances, most obviously from the British mezzo Eirian James, who steals the show as Adonis's seductress-in-chief. There's also a wonderful young countertenor - Catalan but trained in London - called Jordi Domenech, who sings Adonis with the full, rich, fruity tone you wouldn't find in an Anglican cathedral but will at St Johns, Smith Square next month (18th September) when he appears in a concert performance of Handel's Agrippina. Note the date. It could be special.

Meanwhile, Anglican cathedrals and period-consciousness of a different sort bring me to the Three Choirs Festival. Three Choirs is positively steeped in the past: a very British fixture based on massed-voice oratorios and bristling with the formalities of civic grandeur: bishops, mayors, and men in morning-coats who police the proceedings with a zeal that would impress New Scotland Yard. It's all a bit formidable. And slightly sad in that the quality of music-making at the heart of all this civic business can be shaky.

Three Choirs thrived in an era when the diocesan organist was a commanding polymath, with leading orchestras and voices at his beck and call. These days it's different. Music is more specialised. Watching Adrian Lucas, the (extremely fine) organist of Worcester Cathedral conduct the RLPO and choirs from Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester in Berlioz's Te Deum, I could only say it was a decent try but not enough. By modern standards you expect more.

But that said, there are things about Three Choirs - such as its vast community involvement - which are admirable. I quite understand why the festival is so protective of its traditions, because they're great traditions that stretch back for 270 years. They've nurtured Elgar, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, and a host of minor English masters. And they nurture new work still. Last weekend I heard a short but brilliantly effective anthem by Adrian Lucas and a memorable performance of the Festival Mass by Howard Blake. That this year's opening concert featured the Stan Tracey jazz band in the cathedral was a sign that Three Choirs is prepared to broaden its horizons.

Like (I suspect) most people at that concert, I don't pretend to follow jazz. But the sheer virtuosity of Tracey's players and the dynamic of his relationship with them as he directs from the piano transcends the boundaries of musical allegiance. It was mesmerising. To hear it not in the smothered acoustic of a club but the expansive resonance of a cathedral church was something else. Oddly liberating. And entirely right.