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CLASSICAL MUSIC / Yes, it's funny, but just tell us when to laugh

EVERY banana skin portends a broken leg, every joke carries a price, and sometimes the payment is so steep that you don't know whether laughter is appropriate. And it may not be in Shostakovich's frenetically absurdist opera The Nose which played last weekend in the Brighton Festival. According to his memoir, Testimony, Shostakovich considered The Nose 'a horror story, not amusement', and its narrative (after Gogol, about a bureaucrat whose olfactory organ goes AWOL) a grim reflection of Soviet realities. 'If Gogol had lived in our day,' said Shostakovich, 'he would have seen stranger things.'

But he would hardly have heard more abrasive music, hurtling forward at the breakneck speeds that Russian stage satire traditionally adopted to confound the censors. If The Nose is comedy, it's too heartless to be loveable; Stalin didn't love it and the opera was suppressed shortly after its premiere in 1930. It didn't surface again in Russia until 1974, when the Moscow Chamber Opera mounted the very production which, 20 years on, they were playing here in Brighton.

Crudely pantomimic, the MCO production calls for understanding of its cultural background - which is poor theatre. (The company operates from a Moscow basement.) There's not much musical sophistication. But there is an endearing exuberance in the way the cast throw themselves into the maelstrom of The Nose, sharing its 78 singing roles among a comparatively small number of singers who manage to make the enterprise look bigger by staying on stage when the score doesn't ask them to be there. There are no great vocal discoveries among them: just impactful voices of the big-but-loose dimension that was so memorable in their staging of the Rostov Mysteries, reviewed two Sundays ago.

Like the Mysteries, The Nose is an ensemble piece, well suited to the MCO's democratic policy of everybody doing everything. But the attendant limitation of this is that the company is ill-equipped for work that spotlights individuals and calls for gracious singing. Its other Brighton offering at the weekend was a grotesque double bill of Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor and Salieri's Prima la musica (two miniatures written for a Hapsburg entertainment), cruelly sung and scruffily staged with a repertoire of gestures that would do justice to a manual of coarse acting.

But even this had odd moments of charm, one of them being the opening ritual of a lady in an evening gown and Stepford Wife smile who walks like a mannequin across the stage ringing a tiny handbell. In emphatic English she bids everyone 'gut-ev-en- ink', then assumes a solemn countenance and rings a larger bell that starts the show. The psychology of it is to startle the audience into attention; and it works. But rather too well when it proves to be the highlight of the evening.

The new National Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd contained the highlight of my week when

Julia McKenzie, in the eloquently rasping chest voice she sustained throughout, made mincemeat of the Pie Song: one of those dauntingly physical Sondheim numbers that come with a lot of business and nowhere to breath. The show is reviewed by Irving Wardle (left). But I can't resist an addendum on the score of this most musical of musicals: a quasi- opera where the chorus is ubiquitous and wraps the action in a massive rondo sequence whose repetitions are more seriously structural than any standard Broadway reprise. Not that Sondheim ducks the tricks of Broadway: Sweeney leans dependently on vamps, the chugging bass-line ostinati that go nowhere fast and anchor melodies. But Sondheim's vamps are something else: he uses their neutrality to bind together disparate material like the four songs that combine while Sweeney goes about his business slitting throats. They also act as aural gel, fixing the touchy balance between horror, comedy and romance that pervades the piece. As in The Nose, you often don't know when to laugh; and that can be a problem. If a lost nose isn't funny, neither is a cut throat. But the tension of uncertain taste is what makes Sweeney interesting. Its music is duplicitously rich, true to the double values of the characters - corruptly reputable, lovably murderous - who sing it.

This production actually tones down the richness of the score to chamber scale, with a new arrangement for just nine instruments that exposes the sweet- and-sour ambivalence of Sondheim's sound world. More problematically, it also exposes the lightweight vocal talent of the leads: only Julia McKenzie and Denis Quilley are really equipped for what they have to sing. But you do hear the words; and you get performances of clarity and honesty in which the genius of Sondheim shines.

If Sondheim musicals tend towards opera, there are operas that tend towards Sondheim - and at least two in the Garden Venture project of new, short commissions at the Riverside Studios. Graham Fitkin's Ghosts was the most obvious because its minimalist undercurrent was a first-cousin to the Sondheim vamp, and its sung lines had a easy Broadway feel to them. Geoff Westley's Travels in the Arctic Circle was an engaging piece on the cusp of English Romanticism and Broadway soul- scraping that found just the right tone for a potentially grandiose story of a man in search of his destiny. But the most extraordinary piece was Arms for the Maid by Luke Stoneham: a luxuriantly exotic dreamscape in which an androgynous Joan of Arc (counter- tenor Slava Kagan-Paley) addresses a foetally naked Dauphin (Martin Lindsay) through what is virtually a monologue. Hyper- decorative, ceremonially static, fragrantly perfumed and overlong, but once heard not forgotten. Lucy Bailey's staging, which has Joan appearing from the waist up through a red fur-lined vagina, is all those things and more: a minor masterpiece of camp. The Garden Venture, which has had its failures, is looking up.