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MUSIC / Fresh light on death

The course of true love never did run smooth. Over at the Coliseum right now it's a positive health hazard. Remember what curiosity did for Judith in Bluebeard's Castle? David Alden's crimson production is back, its potency redoubled under the forceful and poetic musical direction of Adam Fischer. And it has a new and seemingly unlikely bedfellow in The Duel of Tancredi and Clorinda. Monteverdi's tiny opera is a moment lifted from Torquato Tasso's epic poem Jerusalem Delivered and frozen, isolated in time. At the first performance Monteverdi prefaced it with a selection of madrigals: Alden and music director, Harry Bicket, have done the same. 'Snuff Madrigals', Alden has called them - an apt description, for they are a prelude to death. They give the star- crossed lovers a past and a future, an emotional context; they establish relationship, motivations; they almost - it has to be said - overwhelm the opera proper.

Alden maroons his madrigal drama in one of his soulless white rooms: this one is embedded like a tomb halfway up a sheer white wall. Relief to cruel white light is offered only in anaemic colour tints - yellow for spring, green for night. Paul Nilon, the Narrator-to-be, slouches in horn-rimmed specs on a white leatherette sofa (another Alden allusion to 1960s tawdriness?): he sings of war; he blindfolds himself in deference to love and the cover of night; in one telling moment of sofa-drama, he quite literally comes between the lovers: might tragedy have been averted in this moment? And so Alden's five madrigals act as a kind of narrative subtext. He sets up Clorinda's sexual ambiguity beautifully: a sexy feminine hand over the back of the sofa is all we first see of Patricia Rozario - her cropped hair and unisex attire are, of course, central to the opera's tragedy. I like too the way in which Alden's highly- charged physicality (as much a feature of his work as the long Fritz Langian shadows he and his lighting designer cast) seemingly contradicts the innocence of the rustic-wooing madrigal 'Handsome Shepherd' - a playful game concealing untold passion. After 'Doomed Hopes', the opera follows without pause. Alden cleverly resists any physical manifestation of 'the duel' itself: the warring couple disappear from sight (behind the sofa) and the amazing onomatopoeic cut and thrust of the Narrator's tell-all description takes hold. Paul Nilon articulates Monteverdi's fantastic vocal elaborations with great intensity, Christopher Ventris as Tancredi is a commanding physical and vocal presence, Rozario is magnetic, so moving in her spiritual ascendancy at the close.

Poor misguided Judith attains no such ascendancy in the sombre apotheosis of Bartok's masterpiece. Indeed, one of the most enduring images in Alden's powerful staging is of Bluebeard's past wives carrying their doors like crosses to Calvary. Judith, perhaps the only woman he ever really loved, must join them. Not content with his love, she sought to unlock all his secrets - including, of course, the grisly past left hidden behind door No 7: the cardinal number, Judith's undoing. There are no visible doors in Nigel Lowery's crimson set: only one exists, and that has been long papered over. Behind it is the light that might have been and the darkness that is. It remains a spare, potent staging, full of pent-up sexual energy and that dangerous, peculiarly Aldenesque physicality. This performance was magnificent - as good as anything I've seen and heard at ENO of late. Gwynne Howell's big, lonely, doomed Bluebeard - wonderfully sung - and Sally Burgess's possessive Judith now thoroughly inhabit the piece, while Adam Fischer's impassioned conducting - the fifth door's C major blaze superseded for once by the anguished processionals to, and through, the fateful seventh - is a constant reminder that the imagery of Bluebeard's Castle is entirely psychological and exists only in Bartok's achingly beautiful score.

In rep to 7 April, London Coliseum, WC2 (071-836 3161)