Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/ European Opera Centre/ Petrenko, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
BBC Philharmonic/Noseda, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Royal Opera House, London

Lighting-up time in Liverpool and a warm tribute to Hickox

'Ne pas fumer! No fumar! Vietato fumare! Nicht rauchen! Few visitors to Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall last Saturday could have failed to notice the on-stage health warnings in Bernard Rozet's European Opera Centre staging of Il segreto di Susanna or to smile wryly as they were flipped over to reveal anti-alcohol notices before the interval.

Thickly perfumed as rose-scented tobacco, indolent and inconsequential, Wolf-Ferrari's one-act opera is a potent advertisement for the heartless and tenacious vamp, Lady Nicotine.

First of two one-acters on the subject of marital duplicity, Il segreto was written in an age when family doctors would recommend a cigarette to calm the nerves. Scored in the fashion of Strauss imitating Puccini imitating Boccherini, with a sly wink towards Debussy, some thunderous Verdian bluster for the jealous male lead, and an ingenious use of Beethoven's Fifth as a musical custard pie, Wolf-Ferrari's music is as seductive as Enrico Golisciani's libretto is spry. Count Gil (Marc Canturri) is the insecure Italian stallion who, upon catching the odour of Turkish cigarettes in his smoke-free palazzo, suspects his new wife, Susanna (Dora Rodrigues), of having an affair.

Deftly choreographed by Rozet, with little more than an umbrella and a cigarette holder for props, this addictive entertainment was as much a showcase for Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Phil as it was for Canturri's incisive, handsome baritone, Rodrigues's smooth, well-focused soprano, and Loïc Varraut's neat, Begnini-esque physical comedy as the silent servant. Petrenko has had an extraordinary impact on this orchestra and conducts with authority and elan. Dusted with celesta and piccolo, Susanna's aria "Oh gioia la nube leggera" was a curlicued confection; the final duet, in which Gil and Susanna resolve to make smoking a mutual habit, a delicious musical granita.

If Il segreto had the smoke, Offenbach's Un mari à la porte provided the mirrors. Difficult to say whether doubling the cast to one singer and one actor per role was a pragmatic means of addressing the spoken dialogue or the result of a European directive, but Rozet's split-screen treatment had enough zest to compensate for any confusion. Best known for Rosita's waltz-song "J'entends, ma belle, la ritournelle", Un mari is a slighter piece than Il segreto but no less sympathetic to human frailty, in this instance, that of a debtor and a debt collector. As Rosita, Gabrielle Philiponet's coloratura was exquisite, while as Suzanne, Anaïk Morel's plum-dark mezzo revealed a rich and easy top. Canturri and Stéphane Malbec-Garcia gave elegant support as Martel and Florestan. Actors Varraut, Vincent Dedienne, Caroline Garnier and Mélanie Le Moine kept the quips coming, while Petrenko delivered a crisp, subtle and stylish orchestral performance. Debt, and smoking, have never sounded so delightful.

At the Bridgewater Hall, Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic gave a powerful reading of Rachmaninov's The Miserly Knight, which, for all its merits in terms of structure and scene-painting, is more blatantly anti-Semitic than Wagner's crude caricatures. The best that can be said about Pushkin's miserablist story of greed and debt is that two of the three goyim are just as unpleasant as the Moneylender (Peter Bronder) who refuses to extend further credit to the spendthrift Albert (Misha Didyk). Noseda's musicality and technique are stunning, but pairing this opera-nasty with Rachmaninov's other problem child, the Symphony No 1, shows dubious taste. That the Moneylender is the only character to be accompanied by an insinuating, nagging oboe makes it hard to concur with the statement that Rachmaninov was not a bigot, and concert performances afford little opportunity for artists to critique the work they perform.

The opening night of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann was dedicated to Richard Hickox, who died suddenly last weekend. That Rolando Villazón's heartbroken, wise-cracking, wine-steeped Hoffmann had an extra layer of sadness this time was hardly surprising: Hickox had conducted the last revival of John Schlesinger's 1980 production, four years ago, when Villazó*made his triumphant Covent Garden debut. It was a sweet performance of a much-loved, tender work and will be but one of many such tributes.



'Les Contes d'Hoffmann': ROH (020- 7304 4000) to 13 Dec

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