CLASSICAL MUSIC:Sin gone stale

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WHISKY, gambling, sex, more whisky, avarice... the currency of depravity in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has been devalued by time, as is the case with all art intended to shock. However fertile the imagination of the artist, real life goes one better; and I can't believe that thought was far from the minds of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod when they decided to stage the trial scene of their new ENO Mahagonny as an O J Simpson media show. It would be parody, but for the fact that what you see - cameras, lights and prancing bimbette waving an "applause" card - is so modest an exaggeration of the truth.

But then the problem with Mahagonny is not that its theme has lapsed into senescence (this, after all, is a piece about the Gotterdammerung of capitalism, and capitalism will linger on the brink of self-destruction for as long as there is life on earth) but rather that the telling has gone stale. The epic, gestural theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill doesn't speak so sharply now: its wilful banalities sound less wilful. And as opera, the abrasive self-containment of its closed forms is an irritant - unless the musical direction is more skilfully controlled than that of Sian Edwards in the pit. Her conducting has no life to it, and reinforces the idea of Mahagonny as a handful of great tunes with great tracts of nothing in between.

For Donnellan and Ormerod, the challenge is to circumvent the emptiness. They succeed to the extent that they get handsome individual performances from Sally Burgess as the Widow Begbick, Robert Brubaker as Jim, and others. But the abiding problem is one of scale: how big a piece is Mahagonny? Current wisdom says it qualifies as full-blown opera, and it certainly needs opera voices. But its language, spirit and style are so conditioned by the genre of cabaret that it needs some kind of containment in the staging, some concession toward intimacy. It looks lost on the big, open, aspirationally Broadway set that Donnellan and Ormerod offer. But then, the problem comes back to the piece itself. In its original form, Mahagonny was a "songspiel", a sequence of pseudo-cabaret numbers. As an opera it's the same thing, only stretched across a canvas far too large for the material. Result: the fabric is extremely thin and tears on touch.

The Spitalfields Festival is under new management, by a triumvirate of composers - Michael Berkeley, Judith Weir, Anthony Payne - who should henceforth be known as the Spitalfields Three. Their first artistic decision has been to bow, like the rest of the world, to the force majeur of Purcell Tercentenary Year. The 1995 festival began on Wednesday with a concert of odes and anthems from Paul McCreesh's Gabrieli Ensemble. Yes, more Purcell... but before you skip the next para- graph, remember that the home of Spitalfields Festival is one of the most atmospherically impressive baroque buildings in Britain, Christ Church, Commercial Street. It makes a very special performing space - especially with McCreesh's experiment of placing his soloists on one side, instrumentalists on the other and choir in between, as is now thought to have been the practice of the 17th- century Chapel Royal. What's more, we had some uncommon repertory, including the bizarre minor-key anthem for the birth of James II's son (an example of the political subtext extractable from much court music of the time) and the birthday ode Celebrate This Festival, with its ravishing textural exploitation of the line "Repeat Maria's name". This is glorious music, done with intimate and loving grandeur by McCreesh, whose direction is more yielding than that of most baroque conductors, shaping the phrases with a sensual rather than martial hand. His soloists, though rather modest "period" voices, were attractive, with the added value of the countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny - somebody to note.

Valery Gergiev, master of the Kirov opera, turned out also to be a master of Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette when he conducted it at the Festival Hall. Part of his impressive concert series which has been propping up the morale of the RPO, it featured (as always) Russian soloists and used the Brighton Festival Chorus, but felt authentically French. The piece usually strikes me as inflated: the musical equivalent of grand French salon painting, busy but with no inner life. Gergiev's reading made it reach beyond words, achieving a peculiarly effective kind of sound theatre. It was also beautifully played by the RPO, and featured the very lovely Olga Borodina, current star of Russian mezzos.

'Mahagonny': ENO, WC2, 0171 632 8300, continues Tues & Thurs.

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