Middle-Aged spread

VERDI's first opera was probably Oberto, written at the age of 26. Although that is not so very young by the standards of mid-19th-century opera composers, the score is clearly an apprentice piece, trapped in conventions passed down the line from Rossini, Donizetti and Bel-lini (who all, needless to say, used them more imaginatively). For good reasons it isn't often done. So Opera North's new production in Leeds is something out of the ordinary, the more so for having the celebrated bass John Tomlinson not only singing the title role but directing the show, his first venture into production.

Frankly, he hasn't chosen an easy vehicle for his debut. To a collector of repertory Oberto has undeniable interest: its narrative of an old man avenging his dishonoured child is the embryo of all the father/daughter relationships that dominate the laterVerdi works. On the great highway of opera roles, Oberto is a Commendatore en route to becoming a Rigoletto. But dramatically the piece is an uphill struggle, shifting from scene to scene with a mechanical awkwardness that would defeat the most experienced director. John Tomlinson's solution is simply to let his characters stand and sing - for which I'm sure they're grateful, and as a result there are some strong, and very big performances. Tomlinson himself enlarges the title role to epic dimensions; and the two principal female roles also reach a grand scale, solidly done by Linda Finnie and Rita Cullis. David Maxwell Anderson doesn't look like the seducer he is meant to be, but is engagingly robust.

All this would be fine if the performances were made to connect more. As it is, they're dangerously free-floating: you feel that Tomlinson has given them too wide a berth (and not enough to do), despite having defined the space they inhabit with a specific context not to be found in the original libretto. Verdi sets it vaguely in the Middle Ages; Tomlinson relocates it to the 1920s, in the court of some Ruritanian prince-dictator whose portrait dominates the stage and looks suspiciously like Peter Moores, the wealthy opera patron (can this be coincidence?). Russell Craig's costumes are accordingly a riot of Vogue fashion-plate fantasy, and the chorus are walking Christmas decorations. But it's a contrivance - an idea imposed on the piece rather than arising naturally from it. At the end of the day the virtue of this singer's production is that it puts the music first (in the effective hands of the Australian conductor, David Porcelijn). Plenty of Verdians will be more than content with that.

Opera productions have to live - if they live at all - through a turnover of singers, conductors and directors whose cumulative efforts can leave a healthy original looking like a badly patched-up corpse; and this was how the Graham Vick ENO production of Figaro's Wedding looked when it last "revived" at the Coliseum. But now it's back again, with yet another cast, conductor and director, and - hurrah - things have picked up. Steven Page's Figaro isn't so dangerous or rich of voice as Bryn Terfel's first time round, but it does have presence ( you can sense behind it the pedigree of all those Don Giovannis Page has tackled in the past); and Rosemary Joshua's Susanna is something special - alert, responsive, lightly inflected but with a bright, glistening quality that gives full value to the notes. Jeremy Sams's words (a one-man vindication of opera in English) dance out of the singers' mouths; and the Canadian conductor Derek Inouye gives them their due with tempi that are sometimes slow but usually convincing.

Above all, the revival has its finger on what made this Figaro so memorable before: the idea of things moving inexorably forward to the fourth act in the garden. One of the perennial difficulties with this opera is to make that fourth act feel necessary to the other three. Vick's production and Richard Hudson's sets treat the action like an onion, peeling off scenes layer by layer in a colour-coded sequence with the green of the garden always visible at the back of the stage, waiting its turn. When it comes, you find the props of the previous scenes transformed into a kind of topiary - obstacles for the characters to stumble over in their blindness. The idea of the garden as a place where unfinished business finally gets sorted, a place of healing, could hardly be made more clear.

Two big choral concerts in London this week said something about the importance of good chemistry between conductors, performers and repertory. On the face of it, the Barbican's Dream of Gerontius had the better line-up: the LSO & Chorus, Sir Colin Davies and Anne Sofie von Otter who collectively turned in a reading of quality. But Davies is a conductor with specific, if wide-ranging, strengths - Sibelius, Berlioz, Tippett, Mozart - and I'm not convinced that Elgar is among them. The same goe s for the lovely but not notably Elgarian von Otter.

Meanwhile at the Festival Hall the demoralised forces of the RPO with the Royal Choral Society did Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. I might not have expected much of it, but for the fact that it was part of a series the RPO is running in collaboration with the Kirov Opera, and conducted by Valery Gergiev. What the playing lacked in polish it more than made up for in cinematic colour. You could see the music breaking out of the orchestral rank and file. Gergiev's curative work with the Kirov has given him the stature of a musical faith healer. If he could only do the same for the RPO, the end of the orchestra's troubles would be in sight.

`Oberto': Leeds Grand Theatre, 0113 245 9351, continues for four more performances, then tours to Nottingham, Hull, Manchester and Norwich.

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