MUSIC / A midsummer night's salon drama

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The Independent Culture
RICHARD STRAUSS described Capriccio as 'an agreeable evening for respectable people', which is a fair description of country-house opera: the suddenly ubiquitous phenomenon whose artistic content not uncommonly amounts to six people in powdered wigs vamping through Mozart's Greatest Hits with piano. The most you can say for it is that in some small way it touches base with the historical origins of opera as domestic entertainment, although shared ground between the Florentine Camerata and today's black-tie-and-banquet packages is limited.

One country-house opera project towers above the others - because it's serious, purposeful and generates its own work. Garsington Manor is now in its sixth season, and every year a little more sophisticated than the year before. People compare it to the early days of Glyndebourne, which is an invidious comparison when Garsington remains open-air and limited in resources. But it has ideals and ambition; and inspired by last year's venture into Strauss with Ariadne auf Naxos (which by all the laws of reason shouldn't have worked, but did) it has opened this year with Capriccio, a hard piece to pull off. In a sense it is the perfect country-house opera: a salon drama whose personae lounge around in an aristocratic milieu discussing principles of art, much as you'd have found at Garsington c. 1915 when the house (owned then by Lady Ottoline Morrell) was a country satellite of Bloomsbury and a wartime refuge for the English literary establishment. But the conversational chic of the piece is expressed in opulent music, richly textured for the orchestra and spun into long lines for the voices. The outdoor acoustic was not kind to either here, and the generally young singers were hard-pressed to supply anything like luxuriant tone. They also seemed inhibited by the decision to sing this most word-conscious of operas in German: a mistake, I think, unless you have surtitles, which Garsington doesn't.

That said, Elgar Howarth (not an obvious Straussian but a committed one) conducts effectively and David Fielding directs and designs with a nice line on the self-regarding nature of the piece. Capriccio involves a poet, composer, director and patronness deciding to make an opera about themselves making an opera; and the conceit at its heart is that you're never sure whether what you see is the preparatory 'reality' or the artistic product. Fielding signals that tension by periodically taking the director out of the picture-frame that surrounds the set, to 'direct' whoever remains within it. The whole of the Countess's closing scene thereby becomes a 'performance', which is a bit obvious. But there are moments of more subtle artifice, as when the Countess wants her chocolate and the director, from outside the frame, hands her the bell to summon it. Life invading art. Or is it art invading life?

Ah well . . .

While Garsington gathers strength, the traditional leader in the field, Glyndebourne, has in effect left the field - propelled into a higher league by the metropolitan sophistication of its new theatre. But there was continuity this week when Glyndebourne revived one of the most celebrated productions in its history: the John Cox / David Hockney Rake's Progress. That Hockney's name prefaces any mention of this production tells you that the designs here are unusually significant: so perfectly attuned to the nature of the piece that they have become the piece for a whole generation of opera-goers. And 19 years on they look disarmingly fresh after repainting and enlargement. But so does Cox's staging, which is still sharp with a clean wit that makes the memory of Opera Factory's recent Rake seem even dirtier. The brothel scene is in exemplary good taste.

The slight disappointment is that the secondary roles

are better taken than the central ones: this show belongs to Steven Page's Nick Shadow, Jane Henschel's Baba and Robert Tear's Sellem rather than to Christiane Oelze's veiled Anne and Stephen O'Mara's resinous Tom. But Andrew Davis conducts with his usual buoyant vigour, and the production proves a fine piece of ensemble work, lovingly detailed. I adore the way the auctioneer's clerks shudder every time his hammer falls. Of such minutiae is dramatic texture made.

When Kent Opera was laid to rest by the Arts Council five years ago it managed to keep one foot out of the grave and give an annual concert; and it has just taken a step towards resurrection with a touring production of Britten's Prodigal Son. Prodigal Son, it must be said, is not a massive undertaking; but it's an exacting one and handsomely delivered at the Spitalfields Festival in a conventional but intense staging - dominated by Howard Haskin, whose dramatic impact as the Tempter confounds the old criticism of the piece that its temptations don't amount to much. Ideally, Son and Tempter would sound more alike: they are meant to be reflections of the same personality, and the original 1968 production was careful to cast Peter Pears against Robert Tear, a tenor (then) of Pearsian complexion. But Haskin's synthesis of honeyed smoothness and declamatory force would be hard to match - as would the venue: Christ Church Spitalfields in gathering darkness is an atmospheric gift to ritual drama.

It has been obvious for a while that John Adams was the composer most likely to tunnel out of the glamorous impasse of minimalism, and his new Violin Concerto, premiered on Thursday at the Barbican, is a landmark on the escape route. True, the writing is more functional than feeling, more relentlessly determined than traditionally virtuosic. But it has a window in the meditative middle section (a chaconne derived from Albinoni-style falling fourths) that breathes air into an otherwise hard-driven style; and there is a brilliantly controlled massing of tension across its 30-plus minutes, so that it drags the audience by the ear from movement to movement. Gidon Kremer played it beautifully, with glistening tone in the unending figurative detail; and the LSO was on spectacular form under Kent Nagano. A relationship, there, building for the future.

'Capriccio': Garsington, 0867 36636, Wed. 'Rake's Progress': Glyndebourne, 0273 813813, Mon.