There was a mild kerfuffle over the breakfast tables of Middle England in December when Peter Mandelson was mystified by a mention of Pooh-Bah on Radio 4's Today programme.
The reactions of the political commentators were interesting. While some took the opportunity to riff on Mandelson as a sophisticate – inclined to Verdi, if not verismo – most found it barely credible that a middle-class man in his mid-fifties would not catch a reference to the "Lord High Everything Else" of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, The Mikado.
Is it reasonable to assume that the patter songs of G&S are hard-wired into the national consciousness? Not any more. Boosted by Mike Leigh's film Topsy-Turvy, Jonathan Miller's 1986 Mikado has performed well for English National Opera in revival, yet neither The Pirates of Penzance nor The Gondoliers has repeated its success. For the most part, Gilbert and Sullivan has become a heritage industry, something for nostalgics, rarely played or sung at home. How intriguing, then, that Opera North should choose to stage Ruddigore now.
Often dubbed the most operatic of the Savoy operettas, Ruddigore 's subject is not class, bureaucracy, the weather or anything that can be labelled a characteristically British preoccupation, but Gothic melodrama, lovesick insanity and the moonstruck instrumentation of Lucia di Lammermoor. Opportunities for inserting topical jokes are happily few in this tale of a family cursed to commit "one crime a day". There is an obligatory reference to MPs' expenses, however, in Jo Davies's tender, witty staging, which heeds Gilbert's warning that "directly the characters show that they are conscious of the absurdity of their utterances the piece begins to drag".
Opera North has a tight, neat and sweet hit on its hands. Having sassed its way through Weill and Gershwin, the orchestra brings charm and delicacy to Sullivan's pastel apparitions and "blameless dances" under conductor John Wilson. Styled after hand-tinted postcards by designer Richard Hudson, the production is set in the aftermath of the First World War. Though there are shades aplenty in Ruddigore Castle, the ghosts of G&S past are largely exorcised in this brisk tangle of concealed identities, inherited tragedy and love-beyond-the-grave. Instead we have young voices, pertly clipped spoken dialogue, ensembles of madrigalian precision, delightfully agile choreography (Kay Shepherd), and a series of sparkling star turns from Amy Freston (Rose Maybud), Grant Doyle (Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd), Richard Burkhard (Sir Despard Murgatroyd), Heather Shipp (Mad Margaret), Hal Cazalet (Richard Dauntless) and Steven Page (the late Sir Roderic Murgatroyd). Can one production revive a dying genre? The music is too slight to matter, matter, matter. But I'll be smiling next time anyone mentions Basingstoke.
Daniel Barenboim's provocative pairing of Schoenberg and Beethoven at the Royal Festival Hall last week was a display of astonishing, sometimes reckless, musical imagination. The first thing to note was the confidence and expressivity of the Staatskapelle Berlin, a once dowdy orchestra whose bowing, even in the most pale and introverted moments of Verklärte Nacht, had fibre and purpose, and whose response to minute or dramatic tempo changes was unfailingly immediate in the two concerts I attended. Their confidence was well placed. Though Barenboim's pianism remains erratic, with many smudges and crunches, he is, in this repertoire, one of the greatest conductors, with the most infallible grasp of musical architecture.
These were high-colour, high-flavour performances, intensely prepared and rehearsed to illustrate often overlooked thematic details, and identifying sources for Stravinsky, Copland, and even Gershwin and the hard-boiled soundtracks of film noir, in the humid blur and glittering brawl of Five Orchestral Pieces. Those who heardVerklärte Nacht could feel as if they had just heard a drama to rival Tristan. In the concertos, every phrase had been analysed, polished and coloured, its function within the wider musical argument considered. Yet it was impossible to avoid the impression that while Barenboim (above) remains utterly fascinated by these works, he is less interested in playing them than he is in conducting them.
Can you blame him? Practising scales and double trills must be less stimulating than immersing oneself in the fabric of a work. I'm not convinced the Staatskapelle needed so much of the whip in performance, but no orchestra would locate such a specific blend of woodwind and strings in the Adagio of the Emperor Concerto unaided, or capture the plumpness of the paired semiquavers of the Allegro con brio in the Second Concerto, or the street-fighter energy in the Rondo of the Fourth. There are cleaner performances, but for the startling colours, the audacious tempi and declaration of the greatness of the pieces, a little crudeness of execution is fair trade.
Last Friday, at the Roundhouse, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment played Beethoven's Symphony No 7 to a packed house of cheering twenty-somethings. For the players, this informal Night Shift presentation was part of an ongoing cycle involving several conductors. What interested me, however, was Vladimir Jurowski, who, like Barenboim, has an ear for the tiniest detail of scoring and articulation and the vision to bind them into an interpretation of great depth. Even interrupted with chatter and clumsily amplified, this was a startlingly severe and exciting interpretation. A cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra can't be far away.
'Ruddigore' (0844 848 2720) to 20 Feb, then touring
Anna Picard takes her chances with Prokofiev's adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Gambler at the Royal Opera HouseReuse content