MUSIC / ENO's bad trip to the moon

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The Independent Culture
SPACE TRAVEL has a surprisingly long operatic pedigree. It turns up in 17th-century commedia dell'arte one-acters, comes of age in Goldoni's promiscuously purloined libretto Il Mondo Della Luna, and reaches Michael Tippett's New Year (Houston, 1989) as a veritable sub-genre of lyric theatre, particularly hard to stage. It's not that science fiction opera needs elaborate technology - there wasn't any in the 18th century. But it does exaggerate opera's burden to underwrite the fantastical with profound truths. Opera, by and large, can only cope with science as magic, charming and ironic; and, not surprisingly, the most successful science fiction opera is comedic. As is Janacek's Adventures of Mr Broucek, which opened this week in a new ENO production by David Pountney.

Mr Broucek is a central European, petit-bourgeois Falstaff: drunken, bigoted, but with a dazzling insensitivity that makes him indestructible and somehow sympathetic. In Part 1 he travels to the moon and finds it inhabited by aesthetes so limp that a Gilbertian romp ensues, straight out of Patience. But in Part 2 (written in 1917 when Czech nationalism was the big issue) there is a change of gear. Broucek travels back in time to the Hussite Wars, and the piece becomes a paean to patriotism, dedicated by Janacek to the first president of the Czech state, Dr Masaryk. It's as if Falstaff wandered from Henry IV into Henry V, a hard transition to pull off in a single evening.

Pountney doesn't manage it, largely because he plays too heavy a hand in the moon scenes which groan under a weight of strident, post-modern satire (substituted for the gentle whimsy Janacek envisaged). The schoolboy jokes (made by characters called Dudcek, Bouncingcek, Spotcek: Pountney's own libretto update) make it impossible to connect with the seriousness that follows. When Part 2 arrives it draws a moving parallel between Czech liberation in the 15th and 20th centuries. But it plays to ears still ringing with those jokes. Like leaves on British Rail, they are the wrong kind and unshiftable.

That said, Broucek has a strong cast led by Graham Clark, Vivian Tierney and Bonaventura Bottone, with Sir Charles Mackerras in the pit - the Verbum Dei when it comes to Janacek, presiding magisterially over both the frenetic detail of Part 1 and the more spacious lyricism of Part 2. In fact, everything you hear (apart from jokes) is exemplary; it's what you see that doesn't make the grade.

Scottish Opera, still shrouded in muttering over last week's announcement that its orchestra is to merge with the BBC Scottish, has a new Magic Flute that barely makes the grade in any sense. Visually brash but vocally muted, it begins well enough with Matisse- like designs (Ken Lee) and a lot of Attitude (from the director, Martin Duncan) that looks as though it might get somewhere with the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment you need in a good Flute. There is an engagingly original Papageno (Midlands gauche: Victoria Wood with feathers) and a nice line in bathos (the Queen of the Night discovered reclining on a sofa). But it's not stylish enough to impress; by the interval the design ideas are threadbare, the costumes silly and the Attitude unbearable. It's loveless, cold and badly lit.

Again, salvation comes from the pit, in the person of Nicholas McGegan, a period performance specialist who conducts with a refined sense of scale and gets a lightly inflected precision from his orchestra to balance the generally light voices on stage. But apart from Susannah Waters's enchantingly soubrettish Pamina and a decently elegant Tamino from Paul Nilon, the first-night singing was undistinguished. Simon Keenlyside's bird-man was good theatre (from the life: I note he has a degree in zoology) but without much voice. The three boys (girls, in fact) were dreadful.

Roger Steptoe's Cello Concerto made its London debut. It was premiered last year in Peterborough and is the best thing Steptoe has produced. It is conventional - music Samuel Barber might have produced had he lived longer, in England, and been raised on Walton and Tippett - but I don't find that a problem. It has passion, vigour and, excepting some thin textures where Steptoe overcompensates for balancing a solo cello against an orchestra, conspicuous craft. Alexander Bailey played it with distinction.

Finally, a valediction to the Scandinavian Festival, which played out last weekend and will surely be remembered as one of the most impressive concert series this country has ever witnessed. It was enormous, expensive (a reputed pounds 2m) and worth every penny and krone that bought its unforgettable performances: the Nielsen and Sibelius cycles, Saul and David, Kullervo et al. I hope it has done something to demarginalise Scandinavia in European culture. It has certainly done no harm to the reputation of the Barbican. And I'll miss it.

'Broucek' continues on Tues (071- 836 3161); 'Magic Flute' on Tues and Wed (041-332 9000).

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