Classical Music:A Marriage of inconvenience

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THE FACT that Beaumarchais was a gun-runner (to the wrong side in the American War of Independence) as well as a playwright doesn't have much bearing on his authorship of The Marriage of Figaro. But it always gives me pause for thought at the poin t in Mozart's opera where Cherubino is packed off to be a soldier. The context is comic, but how hard you laugh is up to the director. Potentially it's one of those disturbing moments when the shadow of the world beyond the piece - one of 18th-century tu rbulence and revolution - filters through. If you know the next instalment of the story, Beaumarchais' La Mere Coupable, you'll know that Cherubino dies in battle. Not so funny after all.

I mention this because the new Scottish Opera Figaro turns suddenly, and strikingly, chilly in that scene. The director is David Leveaux, who proved himself a master of atmosphere when he made his opera debut in Glasgow last year with an unforgettable Turn of the Screw. His Figaro too is atmospheric, with a distinctive view of the piece. We're in an English country house in the 1930s: a time not so unlike the 1780s, when established social structures were at breaking point and chaos lay just around the corner. It's an austere house, ripe for annexation as a military hospital or school; its inhabitants are marshalled into side-lit tableaux owing something to the social portraiture of painters like Dame Laura Knight. The characters themselves, especiallythe Count and Countess, are dowdily neurotic and bleak.

But there's a problem with the cast, who aren't quite strong enough, dramatically or vocally, to be convincing. A stiffly unassertive Figaro from Paul Whelan sets the tone, and the comic business, when it comes, is clumsy. Lisa Milne's Susanna has moments of vocal magic in the garden but spends the rest of the time doing a poor impersonation of Dawn French. Only Claire Bradshaw's Cherubino - a wild, barefoot gamin clearly destined for junior membership of the Chelsea Arts Club - makes a lasting impression: not least in military uniform, although the black leather trench-coat makes you wonder whose army he's about to join. Could this household be a cell of Mosleyite aristos? It's a nice idea.

But like many of the ideas thrown up in the production, it doesn't progress beyond niceness. Nor can it, because Beaumarchais and Mozart get in the way. By the time the marriage scene arrives, complete with ceremonial and dances, it's apparent that the social parallels between modern Britain and old Europe aren't so close after all. Leveaux pulls one final coup by bringing on the Countess at the very end in 18th-century dress, releasing her last gesture of forgiveness into universal time. But it can't save an uncomfortable reading which has not, on the whole, worked. That the package comes with Nicholas McGeegan in the pit, a period specialist who gets a light, brightly articulated 18th-century sound from the orchestra, makes this M arriage even more of a shotgun affair.

Jonathan Miller's Manhattan transfer of Rigoletto is a classic example of updating that does work, and so successfully that ENO won't let it go. For 13 years it has been doggedly revived, toured, televised, recorded and revived again, engendering an unfortunate confusion in the public mind between Rigoletto and rigor mortis. But this time, say ENO, is Positi vely The Last. It's going out on an emotional high, with one of the most stirring revivals it has ever received. An Australian baritone, Michael Lewis, takes the title role, Rosa Manion is Gilda, and, though they trespass into low camp, the performances are swept into a bullish but exhilarating frenzy by the young German conductor Guido Johannes Rumstadt. This is his British debut and it was mightily impressive.

Pierre Boulez is about to be 70 and is celebrating the event, as great men do, on an international scale: touring an all-star concert roadshow between London, Paris, Tokyo and New York. The orchestra he has chosen to take with him is the LSO, which will do its world standing no harm; and the show began this week in some style at the Barbican. Tuesday and Thursday featured Jessye Norman in Berg's Seven Early Songs and Altenberg Lieder, which she sang exquisitely, without overwhelming the texts in the grotesque manner of her more recent London recitals. The delivery was big, but finely judged; if you missed it, you can hear the same forces - Norman, Boulez, LSO - give the same songs on a Sony compilation disc just out. The recordings are old, from the 19

80s, but all the better for the more inviting, less imperious sweetness that the voice had then. Don't be put off by the cover photo, which shows Ms Norman looking like a big, black Barbie doll. It's a serious release.

One interesting footnote to the Boulez birthday celebrations, though, is the widespread feeling that there's nothing to celebrate - except the weakening of the cultural tyranny that Boulez formerly headed. As much a polemicist as a practising musician, he ushered in the new order of the 1950s avant-garde: pristine, untouchable, the "Enemy of Tunes". Now it seems those days have passed. Boulez's scores are their relics, and to hear his Livre pour cordes this week was to be reminded how fragile relics canbe. Like other Boulez scores, the Livre has been in gestation over many years and never finished. For all his self-assurance, he seems to have suffered a recurring failure of nerve in front of the manuscript paper.

But as a legislator of taste and propagandist for a genre, Boulez has undeniably been one of the determining minds of modern music. If nothing else he has advanced an aesthetic for others to react against; and these LSO concerts provide a summary of whatthe Boulezian aesthetic is. Less chilling than perhaps you'd think, and marvellously played.

`Figaro': Glasgow Theatre Royal, 041-332 9000, continues Mon & Thurs.