MUSIC / Euro voyage going nowhere

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The Independent Culture
THE JOKE in Rossini's Il Viaggio A Reims is that no one ever gets there. It is all anticipation, planning and frustration, with a summit-like assembly of grandees who flounce around in a spa hotel, waiting to move on to the coronation of Charles X at Reims Cathedral. Ultimately they discover they are stuck (there are no horses), but they all agree it doesn't matter anyway and have a party. Curtain.

This is not, you might think, the most politic piece to launch the European Arts Festival, the Government's bogus jamboree to celebrate our presidency of the EC. But last weekend a first night audience of Eurocrats dutifully cheered what the director John Cox has turned into a Eurocratic vaudeville, awash with flags, balloons and allegorical ballets. All in execrable taste.

In fairness, it's a not entirely tasteful piece, written to celebrate the very coronation it refers to with an ear for hype, a massive cast (of 18 soloists, mostly required to show some coloratura proficiency) and, at its premiere in 1825, an aquatic display. Such things are an invitation to camp which Mr Cox doesn't resist. He turns the spa into a Carry On film health hydro and brings the curtain down on squirting fountains.

But what makes this Viaggio such a dismal bore is that its vulgarity is half-hearted. No one in the cast looks remotely convinced by what they do. The pace is slow, the energy level low, and the singing unremarkable - with distinguished exceptions in Sylvia McNair, Alastair Miles and Renee Fleming. Montserrat Caballe, whose Mme Cortese is meant to be a pivotal figure, is patchy: flashing smiles and sonorities to the audience that raise expectations but don't fulfil them. Half the time she merely marks her part, curiously disengaged and throwing 'spontaneous' asides to the conductor, which would be funnier if they were fewer.

All this is doubly disappointing because Viaggio is a little-known piece. Rossini regarded it as a one-off, quarried much of the material for Le Comte Ory, and consigned the rest to the bin - where it remained until quite recently. Covent Garden's staging is the first by a professional UK company. It ought to be a showcase for the buried treasures of an extravagant, if rambling, score. But although Carlo Rizzi, the conductor, does something to sustain its momentum, the evening fails for lack of guts. To know the true worth of the piece try the recording (there is only one) by Abbado (DG, 1986) which has better voices, more style, and is cheaper.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, Stephen Lawless has reworked the Death in Venice he directed for the Glyndebourne Tour three years ago. It now appears in the festival, and it is the most effective staging of the piece I know: dark with the predatory beauty of a score that speaks the secrets of its author's soul, but bright with an intelligence that deals directly with the issues and judiciously with the erotica.

And what are the issues? They are, I think, that whatever Death in Venice meant to Thomas Mann as a story of destructive passion, Britten read it as a parable on the danger, pain and ultimate necessity of self-acknowledgement, of coming to terms with what we are. Having been through this purgatorial process, Aschenbach dies at peace: the music makes that clear, although the coda Britten provided in his final string quartet (written in the face of his own death) is maybe more equivocal. This production certainly provides a peaceful, if rather sudden, end for Aschenbach - the more striking for the extreme physicality of sexual torture that precedes it.

Robert Tear's Aschenbach is literally bent double with desire, clutching his stomach long before the strawberries arrive, which is slightly de trop but still convincing in the context of what is one of the most devastating, vocally intense, dramatically high-charged performances I've witnessed in a theatre. Alan Opie's multiple-role messenger of death is scarcely less an achievement; and Graeme Jenkins conducts the LPO with wonderful sensitivity to the perilous glamour that stalks the sound world of the score. This is Glyndebourne at its absolute best; and as the last production ever to appear in the existing house (which is to be demolished and replaced) it makes a poignantly appropriate farewell to old times.

Times are changing elsewhere, too. Norwich Cathedral has this week been housing a small but enterprising festival of contemporary church music with Jonathan Harvey as composer-in-residence, visits from various choirs, including King's Cambridge (who gave a superb recital of music written specifically for them: gems by Tavener, Weir, Casken, and a particularly fine Nunc Dimittis by Michael Gorodecki), and liturgical workshops involving students from the Royal Academy. The burden of performances was very ably born by the cathedral choir itself and its director Michael Nicholas.

But there was an unresolved question hanging over this whole enterprise, and it concerns the future of liturgical music. With declining social power and congregations, there is no resource left in the church for cultural experiment: its days of systematic patronage are over, and the fear is that a great tradition may be coming to an end - ironically at a time when 'Christian' music in a broader sense is in the ascendant. Who are the new cult figures of contemporary music? Tavener and Arvo Part. Whose spiritual opera will be premiered at ENO next year? Jonathan Harvey. All of them more influenced by Eastern than Western disciplines.

But this festival in Norwich proves that writing for the church is not so marginal an activity as you might suppose. A few cathedral foundations, such St Paul's and Winchester, are actively commissioning; and the discovery of the week was an exquisitely appealing carol written by George Benjamin for King's 10 years ago but never published, apparently on the composer's wishes. He should reconsider: it's a fascinating window on the inner lyricism in his language that one knows is there but doesn't always hear.

'Il Viaggio', Mon, Wed (071-240 1066); 'Death in Venice', Mon, Thurs (0273-812321).

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