MUSIC / From a whisker to a scream

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DAVID ALDEN is a stage director who strips the wardrobe of opera down to its Y-fronts: the sort of angry young-ish man whose brutal chic has opera-goers cooing masochistically (as only opera-goers can) while he disposes of the comfortable conventions of the medium and gives his audience a bit of rough. Not too much: just enough to get excited. Standard Alden sets look like a public lavatory in an advanced state of decay, lit by a single light bulb. They define a space where some atrocity has been, or is about to be, committed; and they suggest that the atrocity is opera itself - a multi- headed monster on the loose that stage directors have to fight rather than nurture. Alden, with the heightened sensitivities of someone in his line of business, hears the scream beneath the singing; and he generously amplifies it so we can hear it too.

Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't, and the current double-bill at ENO has it both ways. His revived production of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle is devastating theatre, wringing the central nervous system of the piece and wrenching it very productively off course, from Symbolism to Expressionism. In one sense he reduces its proportions, to a kind of bourgeois domesticity. Forget the castle and the seven doors and the lake of tears: here are two people suffocating each other in a closed room, trying and failing to make a relationship. It could be sitcom with a soundtrack. But it isn't, because Alden so intensifies what happens that the drama is enormous, with epic performances from Sally Burgess and Gwynne Howell that count among the finest things seen and heard at ENO in years. Adam Fischer conducts with echt- Hungarian authority; and it would be a classic Coliseum evening . . . but for the fact that you have to sit through Monteverdi's Duel of Tancredi and Clorinda first.

Tancredi is not really an opera so much as a dramatised madrigal; and Alden's new production makes the point by staging it in the context of five other Monteverdi madrigals whose amatory texts prepare us for its narrative of a crusader who fights and kills his girlfriend by mistake. It pairs well with Bluebeard in that the story can be read in comparable terms: a failed relationship of the you-always-hurt-the- one-you-love variety. Tancredi's stylised battle lends itself to realisation as erotic foreplay, and the fatal consequences only raise the stakes - revisiting the timeless (and these days not so poetic) simile of sex and death.

But Alden's idea of the erotic here is a scene of sofa-sex in what looks like a Hackney bedsit, perpetrated by downmarket designer-radicals who look and behave like people who read the NME and think it's Sartre. This is not a helpful view of Monteverdi. It's pretentious and boring, and it devalues the exquisite beauty of the score - which is delivered with no sense of style by heavy voices. Why they come accompanied in period fashion by an on-stage band I can't imagine: it's a gesture wasted on a project which is otherwise so off the rails.

The highlight of the Barbican's Festival of Britten this week was Peter Grimes, conducted in concert by Mstislav Rostropovich with a cast whose supporting members outshone the leads. As sung by the superb Bryn Terfel, it was Balstrode's show; and there can be no doubt by now that this young Welsh baritone is on the threshold of a first-rank international career. His voice has an extraordinary presence that he ought to trim occasionally in deference to his colleagues. But it's wonderful to hear him take control of moments when ensembles go astray, sorting them out with a rock-like dominance that other voices anchor themselves to; and there were many such moments in this Grimes, which had a glamorous but note-vague Ellen in Nancy Gustafson and an engagingly lyrical but too-apologetic Peter in Ben Heppner. Rostropovich was, as always, inspirational rather than technically acute, and beating passages in four that should have gone in two: a caution that betrayed a less than total grasp of detail. Grimes may sound like a conventional score but it's notated, frequently, against the logic of the bar-lines (listen to the passacaglia and try guessing where the down-beats come). It needs a firm, clear hand; and Rostropovich doesn't have one. He's a rostrum hustler who scores from the heart and puts up with a degree of muddle - which the LSO, on good form, takes with equally good grace.

On Thursday, though, he was back to being a cellist and with a vengeance, playing two concerto pieces in the same night. One of them was brand new: a concerto by Robert Saxton, which had its premiere in invidious proximity to Britten's masterful Cello Symphony but held its own as the latest in a consistently impressive series of large orchestral scores completed by Saxton during the past 10 years. This is a true concerto, where the soloist is in conflict rather than alliance with the orchestra, and the conflict is never resolved. It merely settles into a quiet semitonal dissonance. In the interests of balance, the cello and orchestra leave each other plenty of space - during the climaxes the cello opts out and retires until the textures thin down - and there's no disputing the essential contribution of the soloist's material. In some modern concertos the soloist sounds like an optional extra, added to taste.

But all the same, I wish the solo writing had been profiled with more character and less reluctance to indulge the cello's 'singing' voice. I also thought there were some scoring problems in the first movement, and Saxton's characteristic technique of layered perspective (demarcating foreground and background according to apparent pace, in the way that close objects seem to pass by faster than more distant ones when you see them from the window of a train) worked less effectively here than in older scores. Otherwise it earned its place in this festival as a good example of how composers like Robert Saxton, two generations on from Britten, are more comfortable with the memory of the Great Man than the intermediary generation of Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies ever was.

Stephen Hough has a genius for junk; and I mean no ill by saying so, because he also has a genius that stretches across the whole piano repertory. He is not a Brendel who can only live with a few masters at a time. But he does have a special gift for illuminating the obscure and enhancing the second-rate; and, typically, the most memorable things in his Wigmore Hall recital were not Beethoven's Sonata No 32 or the Chopin Mazurkas and Barcarolle but Liszt's distinctly dubious Reminiscences de La Juive (transcribed from the Halevy opera) and a mystery encore that turned out to be written by one of Hough's former piano teachers. In each case it was sheer pianistic ingenuity that made the piece and fashioned something out of nothing; and it reinforced my long-held belief that Hough would be easily the cleverest, most agile keyboard mind in Britain, if he didn't choose to live abroad.

'Bluebeard' and 'Tancredi' continue Tues and Fri (071-836 3161).

(Photograph omitted)