CLASSICAL MUSIC / You didn't like lively, so now you've got dull

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The Independent Culture
I CAN'T help thinking that the dullness of the current Covent Garden Fidelio is retributive: a punishment for the critical contempt that killed off the previous production. That production, directed by Andre Serban, was brash and irreverent, like a small boy kicking a holy cow in the shins, but at least it was something lively to complain about. When the Royal Opera decided not to revive it, the chosen alternative was a safety-conscious staging that made a few conspicuous production points but otherwise kept its head, and energy, down. Where the director Adolf Dresen ventured to address the revolutionary fervour of the piece, it was a dutiful approach. The final chorus happened oratorio-style, with everyone in line, lest we forget that Fidelio develops from a quaint domestic comedy into an abstracted statement of the libertarian ideal. And when the chorus sang it had the vigour of a Labour Day parade of elderly trade unionists. It left you feeling that Pizarro had his uses after all, confining old bores to each others' company.

Now, the Garden claims to have 'restaged' Dresen's production - one up on a mere revival - to inject some life into it; and the staff producer responsible has things moving a mite faster. But he clearly hasn't been given scope for any significant change beyond returning to the original (edited) dialogue. This Fidelio is still punitively dull and still has Jeffrey Tate steering it in broadly reflective terms that his ear probably tells him are sublime but mine doesn't.

What has changed, though, is the quality of singing. The chorus is stronger, and the soloists are largely new and better - from Gillian Webster's charming Marzelline through to Josephine Barstow's Leonore. This is in fact Barstow's first scheduled Leonore at the Garden, and the role is a gift for so dramatically accomplished a soprano. Not quite the gamine, she is worryingly matronly in Act I, the vibrato wide although controlled and the tone steely. But her best qualities come to the fore in Act II where the voice is razor-clean: a handsome partner to the bright transparency of Reiner Goldberg's Florestan. She is every inch the protagonist that Leonore must be as Beethoven's challenge to the woman-as-victim stereotype in opera. That she makes her challenge cross-dressed as a man isn't important. Well, not that important.

As for real men, this production offers Willard White as Pizarro and Kurt Rydl as Rocco, two basses of comparable timbre although Rydl's is a richer, more capacious and more lubricated voice that sets the standard for the whole cast.

The week's most impressive singing, though, came from Jennifer Larmore in recital at the Wigmore Hall. This is the young American mezzo who shone in the Royal Opera's Barber of Seville last time round and took the title role in the award-winning Harmonia Mundi release of Handel's Julius Caesar: a warm, occasionally heavy but still flexible bel canto voice that handles coloratura with security and confidence. Understandably, she flagged her opera triumphs in this programme; but to prove her versatility in other fields she also offered French and Spanish repertory, with Weill and Satie songs for encores - sending her audience home without the sustained battery of fireworks they expected. Instead they got a rounded portrait of the artist that was limited in colour and attention to the texts but entrancing in its custard smoothness (cordon bleu consistency) and beauty.

There has always been music in Oxford, but not always of a standard you would expect from a great and ancient centre of culture. Of course there were the choirs, and there were student concerts (of uncertain quality); but apart from occasional visiting artists, there wasn't much else to get excited about until, 10 years ago, an organisation called Music at Oxford came into being.

Since then, Music at Oxford has co- ordinated the choral activity, run regular concert seasons, organised festivals, and generally raised the temperature of musical life in the city. It has ruffled a few feathers along the way; but its achievements speak for themselves, and in 1993 MAO is celebrating its anniversary with a series of events that included, last weekend, Arvo Part's St John Passion in the Sheldonian Theatre.

Part's Passion was one of the first cult hits of Holy Minimalism: a precursor of the commercial success of Tavener and Gorecki that became known through performances by the Hilliard Ensemble in the early Eighties. Slow, austere, largely preoccupied with stripped-down textures bleeding into silence (which is as important to the score as any pitched note), it requires a big acoustic and a comfortable seat. The Sheldonian gives you neither, and this performance by the BBC Singers with accompanying instruments suffered as a result. It sounded dry, and the cruelly exposed part-writing was hesitantly dealt with.

But I was held by the piece: by its disciplined but shifting logic, by the passive grandeur of its sub-Stravinskyan detachment, and by the way its melodic lines never quite turn into something you could comfortably call melody - because triadic and tonal as they are, they see-saw up and down with scant opportunity (beyond the approach to a cadence) for three notes to move in the same direction. The result is bell-like: a kind of harmonised change-ringing where the voices move against each other in contrary motion but rhythmic unison, striking severe but passing dissonances en route. Its expressive potential is debatable, but the cumulative impact is what counts; and the 75 minutes of Part's Passion can, in the right circumstances, be an agreeably disorienting experience. Time-determined and yet somehow separate from time.

To lose one programme, as Lady Bracknell might have said, may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessless. Like many people at the Festival Hall on Wednesday I was dismayed to discover that the Philharmonia's advertised programme of Britten's Spring Symphony and Gloriana Act II had been scrapped in favour of a standard Beethoven and Elgar sandwich, and then to be told that the substitute programme would itself be changed: for something the orchestra hadn't even rehearsed. Instead of Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto (soloist 'indisposed') we had Beethoven's 7th Symphony and apologies. They were poor compensation for a performance that John Eliot Gar diner, a resourceful conductor, got through but only just. I didn't stay for the Elgar.

'Fidelio' continues Tues and Sat at the Royal Opera House (071-240 1066).