MUSIC / Figaro here, Figaro there, Figaro everywhere

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IF LOGIC were a determining force in opera, the star of Il Barbiere di Siviglia would unequivocally be the Barber, as the star of Billy Budd is Budd or Tosca Tosca. But the Barber is the baritone in a comedy of frustrated love where the tenor gets the girl, as tenors usually do on the Italian lyric stage; and pitch- discrimination operates against him once the impact of his entrance number passes. At the first performance, when the opera appeared under an alias in deference to the existing Barbiere by Paisiello, the name Rossini chose was 'Almaviva', ignoring the baritone, acknowledging the tenor; and the celebrity in that first cast was likewise the tenor, Manuel Garcia, who commanded a greater fee for singing the role than Rossini did for writing it.

I dwell on this because the revival of Il Barbiere at Covent Garden - in Stephen Unwin's admirably clean production which avoids slapstick routines - is almost thrown off balance by a Figaro who seems unable to believe that he isn't the romantic lead. And since the Figaro is Thomas Hampson, who can blame him? Hampson is a matinee idol of the opera circuit: tall, dark, dashing, his enormous smile a testimonial to all-American dentistry. And he puts everything he has - including the voice, which is lyrical, capacious, stylish - into this role, his first in a British opera house and long awaited by his fans who were out in force on Monday night. He is, you feel, determined to make an impression, and he does. But there's too much of his performance to fit into so carefully proportioned a production; it has a largesse that overdrives the necessary precision of bel canto singing.

But with that proviso this Barbiere has a stunning cast, principally from America where the majority of fine bel canto voices seem to come from now. Hampson aside, there is a classically controlled and firm-of-tone young Almaviva from Bruce Ford, and a superlative Rosina from Jennifer Larmore who is a living argument for the reclamation of the role by mezzos with the warmth and substance of lower- lying coloratura. Colonised for so long by sopranos, Rosina comes too close to the soubrette condition of a spineless flirt. Evelino Pido is the conductor, an experienced Italian who first surfaced over here at Wexford in 1991 with a triumphant L'Assiedo di Calais (Donizetti). His Barbiere isn't so memorable but it is tasteful, considered and worth an invitation back. And if you cherish Hampson's Figaro he has a new recording (EMI) due in July.

Anyone trying to launch an orchestra in hard times could be forgiven for peddling a gimmick in its profile, and the gimmick of the New Queen's Hall Orchestra is that it plays romantic repertory

Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Wagner - on instruments of the kind you might have heard in the original Queen's Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood in the early 1900s. Now, instruments haven't changed much since then, and the NQHO's claim to be a serious period performance band strikes me as fetishistic, as pretentious as its habit of opening very ordinary concerts like the one at the Barbican last Wednesday with the National Anthem. But the argument runs that Henry Wood's wind instruments would have been French rather than German, with smaller bores and softer, more 'expressive' tone that resulted in a different balance from the one we know today in powerhouse symphony ensembles.

It's a nice idea, but it amounts to very little when the instruments are semi-derelict and 'expressivity' is used as a cover for playing as shabby as this turned out to be, under the conductor James Judd. If I took pleasure in the sound of undistinguished orchestras recorded on shellac, I might have enjoyed it: NQHO seems to model itself on the 78rpm collector's dream, glue-like textures, hiss and all. But I don't, and I found the evening a sad muddle of hype, navety and Palm Court camp - typified by a platform announcement that the 1873 Steinway brought in Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto would not, after all, be heard. When it arrived

for the rehearsal it was found to be unplayable.

A better example of period style, without period instruments at all, came from the London Philharmonic in Haydn's Creation at the Festival Hall. The advertised conductor, Klaus Tennstedt, was ill and replaced by Roger Norrington in an inspired substitution of one masterly maverick for another - radically different in outlook, but an example of the Heraclitian principle that the way up and the way down are one and the same, given a fair wind.

Norrington's way was to use the forces he inherited - with a bigger chorus than he presumably would have chosen - as though they were his own period band: up tempo, energised and wirily alert to the uncommmon vividness of Haydn's score. It didn't quite have the electric take-off of a Norrington ensemble on peak form, but it was a fine sound matched by good if not ideal- choice soloists (Anthony Rolfe Johnson, David Wilson-Johnson, Felicity Lott) and the best I've heard from the Philharmonic Choir in a long while.

'Barbiere' continues Tues & Fri at Covent Garden (071-240 1066).

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