MUSIC / A new king crowned at the court of Karajan

AT pounds 188 for a stalls seat in the Grosses Festspielhaus, the classless society has yet to come to the Salzburg Summer Festival. It's still the most outrageously expensive cultural affair in Europe; and although its new director, Gerard Mortier, wants a younger, less Chanel-soaked audience and younger artists who don't necessarily belong to Deutsche Grammophon - the record company that has king-made here since the days of Karajan - there isn't, so far, much to show for his intentions.

But at least the ghost of Karajan has been pointedly laid to rest with the emergence of Nikolaus Harnoncourt - who stands for everything that Karajan did not - as the favoured conductor of the new regime. That he is the favoured conductor is clear from the news that next year he will conduct a Beethoven symphony cycle: the Salzburg equivalent of canonisation. This year, too, Harnoncourt has pulled the festival ace, conducting a new staging of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea with an impressive, period-conscious (not period-constrained) cast and his own superlative 'authentic' band, Concentus Musicus, accompanying.

The startling thing about this new Poppea is that it reflects a change of heart about the piece. Whenever Harnoncourt conducted it before - not least, on disc - the speeds were driven and incisive and the textures lean. Now everything is spacious and luxuriant, almost romantic in its willingness to linger over beauty, and entirely governed by the sung lines - which Harnoncourt mouths as he conducts, from start to finish. It becomes a celebration of the human voice in its purest form and a celebration of musicianship of genius. Harnoncourt at peak performance here provides his audience with nothing less.

The staging, though, is more equivocal. Poppea is one of those renaissance cocktails of low humour and high drama which leave it up to the director to sort the proportions out; and I'm not sure that Jurgen Flimm's sub-Peter Sellars brand of post-modern humour (Cupid in a baseball cap, Ancient Romans watching TV) gets it right. There are too many laughs. But Flimm's touch is more elegant than Sellars' (this is, after all, Salzburg). And it addresses the key problem of the piece, which is one of moral positioning.

Poppea asks its audience to believe that two unsympathetic, small-time libertines who fail to rise to the heroic status of a Don Giovanni and, worse still, fail to get their come- uppance, can be capable of love. This is a lot to ask, and some directors settle for a dose of lust instead. But that's not what the music says; and Flimm lays bare the paradox of tender feelings bred in hearts of evil by isolating, visually, the intimate exchanges - closing off the larger world of Nero and Poppea's ghastly lives. He also tones down his Poppea who becomes an opportunist rather than an off-the-shoulder femme fatale, and correspondingly tones up the abandonata Ottavia into a squalling frump.

Marjana Lipovsek's Ottavia squalls too convincingly to make a pleasing, pitch-sure sound, but she is certainly dramatic; and Sylvia McNair's Poppea is enchanting (maybe too enchanting) with an easy technical assurance, bright tone and immaculate precision. Casting the counter-tenor Jochen Kowalski as Ottone, was a mistake. The tessitura is too low, he sounds as though he has a handkerchief in his mouth, and he looks like Vanessa Redgrave in designer trousers. If you're going to have a man in this castrato role, and not a mezzo, he might as well proclaim his gender. But casting Philip Langridge as a tenor Nero was inspired; and his command of character - neurotic, gnomic, dangerous - is literally the talk of Salzburg. In a single day I heard it eulogised in church, a cafe and a public lavatory. It's good to find a British artist seizing Salzburg where it counts.

The London Philharmonic was hoping to do the same this week when it arrived in the city with Franz Welser-Most for two high-profile concerts at the Festspielhaus. To say these dates were critical would be an understatement. When you play on what is probably the most prestigious platform in the world, you can't afford a failure. Especially not when it's your first time there; when you have something to prove internationally about the stature of your music director; and when you face the possible withdrawal of state-funding back home.

I'm glad to say that the LPO's Salzburg debut on Thursday was not a failure. It was well-received, with what might have been a standing ovation (standing ovations can be hard to distinguish from slow exits), and it was one of the more convincing demonstrations I've seen of Welser- Most's qualities as a conductor: fine technique, alert, intelligent musicianship, and a discernable idea of what he's doing - in this case with Kodaly, Bartok and Schumann. The scherzo of the Schumann Second Symphony and the encore (Nicolai's overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor) had a fire and brilliance in the playing that was good to hear.

But at slower tempi there were problems, still, of balance and texture; and the absence I often feel in Welser-Most's conducting of a real sense of authority. These things take time and time, perhaps, is all he needs. But can the LPO afford to wait? And is the Arts Council prepared to? With the news just broken that the Philharmonia is about to lose Sinopoli, the London orchestras are under starter's orders.

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