Far from the middling crowd

Classical Music
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The Independent Culture
THERE are no rules for what sort of story lends itself to opera beyond the requirement that you can strip the fat off it and leave a striking skeleton for the music to reflesh. Try that with Thomas Hardy, where the emotions come big but embedded in a textural density that doesn't easily peel away, and you have a problem - which is perhaps why Hardy has never held the lyric stage. Adaptations such as d'Erlanger's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1906) have had their moment and gone; while Edward Harper's Fanny Robin (1975) and The Mellstock Quire (1988) filleted the novels of their origin so much that you can see why Hardy's titles were not retained.

But Stephen Paulus's The Woodlanders - which has just had its European premire at the Oxford Playhouse - tries hard to squeeze most of the story in, with some success. Paulus is an American, and apart from his opera The Postman Always Rings Twice at the Edinburgh Festival in 1983, he hasn't had much of a platform here. But across the Atlantic he is, I think, the most successful opera composer outside the high-gloss minimalist school of Philip Glass and John Adams. He gets performed by the top companies, and has a special relationship with the St Louis Opera, which is run by Colin Graham - and if you remember Graham's work (he was, after all, the doyen of British opera directors until Things Moved On) you'll appreciate that Paulus is not a bellowing radical. The Woodlanders (librettist Colin Graham) is a Europhile, conventionally crafted score: the sort of music Samuel Barber might have written for an Aldeburgh Festival had he lived longer, been closer to Benjamin Britten, and absorbed a few ideas from Stephen Sondheim. All of which is no bad thing. The ensemble writing is accomplished, the response to text intelligent; and Acts II and III (which work better than Act I) have solo numbers of extraordinary beauty opening like flowers out of the anxious, troubled lyricism of the broader writing. Time and again I sat up and thought how few European composers could do it so well or have kept so in touch with the traditional craft of writing for the theatre.

On the minus side, the writing is reserved. It doesn't often seize the moment and make capital with big ideas. It keeps its hands clean where a Verdi or Puccini would be rolling in the mud, and it needs gutsier performances than the good but limited young professionals and students of the Oxford University Opera offer. Above all, it has the standard Hardy problem of textural density, and the resulting turnover of incident is inhibiting. Characters come and go delivering splinters of text like a film on fast speed, with no time to establish themselves beyond cartoon dimensions.

But I do believe that more experienced singers would help, and that The Woodlanders would make good repertory for, say, Opera North. As things stood at Oxford, it was a damn good try, with a production whose effective lighting (Jonathan Histed) made up for what was otherwise lacking in atmosphere (not much of a wood), and with a very capable young conductor in Sarah Ioannides. Students or no, this was an important premire; and it ought to remind British opera companies that lyrically expansive vocal writing of the kind which doesn't frighten people on the Clapham omnibus is not, and never has been, out of fashion in America. They have a rich resource there. Why do we ignore it?

After the past few weeks I feel an internal censor saying: "That's enough Tippett, ed." So it's probably as well that the LSO's Tippett festival at the Barbican has come to an end - with a performance of The Mask of Time that passed without incident (no hecklers) but a bestiary of scheduled alternatives (frog noises to monkey grunts) in the score. They are there because The Mask attempts to be a catalogue of life: a grand, secular oratorio encompassing the history of everything that ever was and homing in on music as the energising, organising First Cause. Well it would, wouldn't it?

The genius of The Mask is felt most forcefully where words give way to pure, ecstatic utterance. The text is Tippett's own and is gruesomely pretentious. But this is also a score whose whole exceeds the sum of its occasionally suspect parts; and you could say the same of the entire Tippett festival, which has been a magnificent (and brave) achievement on the part of the LSO and Sir Colin Davis. However uneven the quality of the music, the high points have been sublime: Visions of Paradise as promised. And the music- making has been good thoughout - not only in the Tippett but in the other things packaged around him, not least an outstanding Elgar 1st Symphony the other week, and an unforgettable Elgar Piano Quintet from the Nash Ensemble.

Few of the other London orchestras these days manage to invest their concerts with the sense of event the LSO supplies on demand, although they do try. The Philharmonia has been running a Brahms symphony cycle with Christoph von Dohnnyi at the South Bank, and this week's instalment of Nos 1 and 3 was impressive with patrician readings that held most of their fire until the final movements. Stylish, purposeful, they bore the mark of a conductor who knew exactly what he wanted from his players and for the most part got it: including a spotlit brass profile that would have pleased Dohnnyi's home-ground Cleveland audience, though it was a bit American for my taste.

The soprano Lesley Garrett raises an issue of taste as well. She isn't mine. But I can see why her bright, pert personality and thin but agile voice pull the crowds; and she does Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen, back at ENO, very nicely. Thanks to the vagaries of London Underground I missed the first 10 minutes. But the rest was a delight, with clean, sharp diction and an avalanche of charm. David Pountney's cuddly, Christmas-grotto production has always seemed to me to attempt less but work better than the more conceptual Covent Garden Vixen. And for all that charm, it isn't sentimental: the essential non-requirement.

`Cunning Little Vixen': Coliseum, WC2 (071-632 8300), continues Wed & Fri.