Riders to the Sea, Coliseum, London <br>Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jansons, Royal Festival Hall, London

Its conductor Richard Hickox may have died, but this slight Vaughan Williams show goes on
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The Independent Culture

The sudden death of the conductor Richard Hickox four days before opening night inevitably cast a huge shadow over the English National Opera's new production of Vaughan Williams's Riders to the Sea.

Hickox was the most expert of Vaughan Williams interpreters, and, without his involvement, ENO might never have mounted this unusual opera, premiered in 1937 and rarely revived. In the event the company's music director, Edward Gardner, stepped confidently into the breach, and not only did the show go on but the performance was musically crisp and effective.

The piece itself is less so. Based on J M Synge's 1904 play set in the Aran Islands, it shows an Irish family in a state of perpetual bereavement following the loss of a husband and four sons to the sea. Matriarch Maurya frets about Michael, her latest son to go missing, and tries to dissuade his brother Bartley from setting off for the mainland. Her two daughters, suspecting that Michael has drowned, try to hide the evidence. Maurya has a vision of the two lost boys before Bartley's body is finally brought in. At the end, Maurya has a stretch of lyrical singing, realising that the sea can do her no more harm, and accepting her loss.

Vaughan Williams's setting sticks so closely to the play's contours that much of the result is little more than assured text-setting, plus a fair amount of sea-and-wind atmospherics. There's not enough musical substance to justify even the work's slender scale.

Fiona Shaw's staging – her first in the opera house – is nevertheless a thoughtful piece of work marred only by the tendency of her characters to run rather than walk, which, given the size of their home, looks silly. Designers Dorothy Cross and Tom Pye present a hard rocky outcrop and images of sky and ocean, with a plethora of upturned boats finally rising over the scene like so many coffins. It works on its own terms without improving a limited score. But the cast does well, notably Patricia Bardon's dignified Maurya and Leigh Melrose's devil-may-care Bartley.

Spinning out a short evening is the preceding performance of Sibelius's tone-poem Luonnotar, with Susan Gritton, in another boat, personifying a spirit of the air impregnated by the waves and giving birth to the sky, moon and stars, in this early 20th-century retelling of a Finnish creation myth. With her pristine tone and delicate poise, Gritton manages to make more impact than the opera proper. But then her music is stronger.

Gramophone magazine recently put the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra sixth among the world's top ensembles, and the orchestra's visit to the Royal Festival Hall under its principal conductor, Mariss Jansons, certainly showed the silkiest string tone as well as articulate woodwind and impregnable brass in Bruckner's Romantic Symphony. Jansons's Mozart has the old-fashioned air of a musical-box, albeit one of the very finest workmanship, but some of emotional insecurity and wit that gives Mozart his fascination had been smoothed away in his Linz Symphony, which needed more character to offset the sheer sonic beauty of the performance. The Bruckner was more successful, especially in terms of the crucial tempo relationships that should underpin the vast compositional spans as securely as the arches of a Gothic cathedral. Balance, too, even with the brass in apocalyptic cry, was expertly judged. A few blemishes scarcely damaged what was overall a magisterial account, both epic and minutely observed.

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