MUSIC / Age shall not wither her

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The Independent Culture
OPERA ISN'T ageist. On the contrary, it clings to superannuated Butterflys and Siegfrieds in acceptance of the fact that these are roles where heavy vocal demands overrule youthful dramatic ideals; and it readily accommodates Tatyanas who score low on adolescent freshness but deliver the emphatic, spinto qualities in what is otherwise a lyric heroine.

But Tchaikovsky had views on how Tatyana should be cast and made efforts to protect her from the 'old crocks' (his words) of the Russian imperial theatre, which is partly why Eugene Onegin was premiered in 1879 not by professionals but by students. And he'd surely have approved the Tatyana in the new Onegin that opened this week at Covent Garden: the enchanting, impressive and very young Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova, who doesn't sing as physically as you might ask - there is a restraint that stops short of complete surrender to the moment - but is none the less adorable. A trifle cold of tone, perhaps, but full and strong and searing with the vocal edge that only Russians have.

Russian-ness is the big sell of this production, which comes with personnel imported almost as a package from the Kirov Opera in St Petersburg. The Lensky is Gegam Grigorian, a sob-in-the- throat Armenian of glorious vocal dimensions who catches the essential insecurity in Lensky's make-up and gauges with unusual finesse the cumulative tension of the Act II ball scene. The veteran bass Nicolai Ghiaurov sings Gremin - slowly, solemnly, but with tremendous audience appeal. And Sergei Leiferkus is Onegin, the voice a tight, smooth-running engine with a touch of resin in the tone to amplify its penetrative edge and giving not too much away about Onegin's feelings.

But then, what can we know about Onegin? Like Don Giovanni, he stalks through an opera that bears his own name without inviting the audience to any closeness of relationship. Like Tchaikovsky (a homosexual in a formalistic and conventional society), Onegin barricades his inner life. And perhaps that's what this opera, with its see-saw symmetry (Act I, he rejects her; Act III, she rejects him), is about: repressed emotions and their tragic consequences. It certainly seems to be what this John Cox production is about, reinforced by stark set designs (Timothy O'Brien) that start off interestingly austere but degenerate into scruffy impoverishment. They are not the glory of the show.

But there is glory in the conductor Valery Gergiev, the young and by reputation thrustingly entrepreneurial music director of the Kirov, who thrusts nothing on this production except musicianship of great distinction. He lingers over-fondly on endearing items like the Triquet aria but that's a misdemeanour of love, and he clearly loves this score to its very soul: a Russian soul, as Gergiev has it, radiating through the European skin of Tchaikovsky that Western interpreters rarely penetrate so surely, and with such insight or tenderness. This was the first time Gergiev has conducted a Royal Opera staging, and I think he's earned himself an open invitation to come back.

Onegin is a sharp contrast to Covent Garden's current revival of Don Giovanni, which limps along through shabby ensembles and lifeless individual performances under Bernard Haitink. Something has gone seriously wrong here, because the cast looks good on paper (Thomas Allen, Claudio Desderi, Ann Murray, Karita Mattila). It just doesn't ignite on stage. And Tom Allen's Giovanni is sounding slightly frayed: not so commanding and not enough to carry a production on its back as it used to.

The week's truly bad news, though, belongs to the Almeida Theatre, Islington, which has been running a short season of new work in conjunction with ENO's Contemporary Opera Studio. When the relationship between these two promoting houses launched last year it seemed promising enough; but the promise falls flat in Kevin Volans's The Man who Rides the Wind, which is as misjudged an attempt at music theatre as I've seen in a long while. Volans is a South African whose distinctive brand of ethnic minimalism - African soundscapes filtered through acquired European (especially French) sensibilities - has won him a certain status on the designer string quartet circuit; and his opera comes steeped in that background. Much of it sounds like an extended string quartet with voices off, preoccupied with textural experiment and intricate rhythmical games. What passes for the opera's narrative - reflections on the life quest of the poet Arthur Rimbaud - belongs to literature. Not to the stage. And when, in the long, slow second half, the libretto wanders into Rimbaud's Les Illuminations you can only pine for Britten, who got there first and more effectively.

The other full-length piece in the Almeida season is by Julian Grant, and his setting of Ostrovsky's viciously black farce about the triumph of wrong, A Family Affair, is at least good theatre. In fact it's brilliant theatre, with a robust cast of singer-actors (including the magnificent Nuala Willis, who could make a career as a pantomime dame if she ever gave up opera), a buzzing production by Martin Duncan, and a laugh-a-minute libretto that the music served very efficiently, in the fast-flowing arioso manner of Prokofiev or Walton. Julian Grant does have theatrical nous, and a keen sense of comic timing, which is a rare gift for a composer. But there is a point where efficiency becomes subservience and music becomes mere context; and A Family Affair crossed it unequivocally, with a score that was all technique and precious little substance. So on musical grounds it was another thumbs down for the Almeida, whose season as I saw it had only one real claim to distinction: the involvement of the Brindisi Quartet, who formed the nucleus of the orchestra for the Volans and also appeared in their own right on Sunday.

The Brindisi turn up in some capacity or other almost everywhere these days. On Wednesday Radio 3 broadcast a lunchtime recital they gave in Manchester, and the programme - early Mozart, Alban Berg and Frank Bridge - was such a pleasurable paradigm of sensitive, intelligent, innately musical musicianship that it forced me to drop what I was doing and listen. Not many lunchtime recitals leap out of my speaker system like that; and if the Brindisi aren't currently leading the front rank of young British quartets (a sizeable and strong community), I don't know who is.

'Eugene Onegin', Covent Garden, 071-240 1066, Tues & Thurs.

(Photograph omitted)