MUSIC / Difficult evening to get a Handel on

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THERE IS a school of production dedicated to finding things for singers to do in Handel operas - sometimes rather desperate things like topping up their suntan on the Nile in Julius Caesar or throwing scenes in ancient Persian tea shops (Xerxes) - and there is a school that does nothing of the sort: that holds back from visual business, relegates the complications of the plot to words, and makes the stage simply a working space for voices. You might call it the nouvelle cuisine school of Handel. In the case of Stephen Wadsworth's new production of Alcina at the Royal Opera House, you might call it nouvelle to the point where it could be mistaken for no cuisine at all.

Some of the lesser characters have so little to do beyond the exchange of long and meaningful looks that you wonder for their job security; and with no change of set through three long acts and a less than crisp pace from John Fisher, the conductor, there are moments when it all becomes a test of patience.

Of course, it is a fine thing to get Handel's score without gratuitous distractions, to be able to focus on the musicianship of an intelligent cast (Yvonne Kenny, Ann Murray, Anthony Rolfe Johnson), and Wadsworth does extract a level of intensity from them that goes some way toward theatre. But Alcina needs spectacle. It's a piece about a sorceress, part-Circe, part-Prospero and part-Dido in that her arias define a woman with conflicting qualities of cruelty, enlightenment and tragic love, who in Handel's time (1735) would have appeared in the full panoply of her spirit powers, enlarged by everything the stage effects could offer. But Wadsworth discards all that, along with the chorus (who sing mostly offstage), the minor character Oberto, and a batch of spirit dances; and, excepting a perfunctory wave of the magic wand, we are left with no real idea of this woman's power, other than in human sexual terms. She becomes a player in some super-civilised 18th-century fete champetre (the single set owes much to Watteau, and to House and Garden), which diminishes her stature but enhances her claim to audience sympathy when things go wrong.

This, presumably, is Wadsworth's goal: it's easier to weep for jilted women than for disenfranchised witches. But the need for spectacle remains; and if it isn't to be statisfied visually, it should be vocally - which is the second problem. This is a fine cast. Kenny, in the title role, has an exceptionally controlled liquidity of voice. Murray, as ever in trousers (as Ruggiero), is both touching and precise. And Judith Howard's Morgana makes the most of the decision that she should get the plum aria 'Tornami a vagheggiar', sometimes allocated to Alcina. But Rolfe Johnson sounds uncomfortable; Kathleen Kuhlman is miscast as Bradamante, and overall they make (with Stafford Dean) six characters in search of a coloratura - not entirely at home with the force and weight of technical display the score demands. The modern benchmarks for Alcina have been set by Sutherland and, later, Arleen Auger. This staging does not quite live up to either.

St John's Smith Square has been doing seasonal duty with a mini-festival of choral music that included, on Monday, the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, in a programme called A Cathedral Christmas. The voices sounded tired - as they probably were, having just returned from a foreign tour - and exaggerated the asperity this choir has nurtured in response to the dry acoustic of its home. If Christ Church were as resonant as King's, Cambridge, it would doubtless house singing as sweet-toned.

But sweet-singing, and the whole notion of cathedral Christmases as exemplary of how things should be done, is under attack this year - as evidenced by a Radio 3 broadcast on Tuesday called, provocatively, Not the Nine Lessons and Carols. It might have been musical satire. It was in fact Andrew Parrott propagandising the message of his New Oxford Book of Carols, just published by OUP, that Christmas choral repertory was constrained and enfeebled by Victorian Anglicanism, and it's time we redeemed the raw heritage of carolling that thrived in worship before gallery-bands surrendered to schoolmistresses with harmoniums and parish churches struggled to turn themselves into miniature choral foundations they could never be - inspired in this vain pursuit by the pernicious precedent of King's.

Given that parish choirs are an endangered species, losing ground to synthesisers and guitars, Parrott's challenge may be too late; and it is, in any case, not new. Read the preface to the famous 1928 Oxford Book of Carols (which Vaughan Williams helped compile) and you find much the same point: that parishes would be better off re-examining local traditions of singing than struggling with cathedral style. Much of the 1928 book was actually devoted to revitalising those traditions, recognising them as the beginnings of modern music; and it knew its subject.

So does Parrott, whose new book is an impressive piece of practical scholarship designed to desanitise the Christmas repertory and demonstrate what there is beyond the niceties of modern Anglicanism: especially the music of the gallery-bands, the American primitives and European folk tradition. He has issued an EMI recording, The Christmas Album, to show how it should be done - with a hearty earthiness and strong pulse; and in fairness, what he argues for is permissive rather than doctrinaire authenticity: a widening of horizons, not a narrowing. But for anyone (like me) who came to music in the first place through the struggling aspirations of a parish choir to sing like King's, the argument is worrying. Remove a grand objective and you lose an opportunity.

'Alcina' continues Tuesday at Covent Garden (071-240 1066); also 15, 18, 20, 22 January.

(Photograph omitted)