MUSIC / Giovanni and gang go nowhere

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YOU MAY know the joke about two members of the Glyndebourne audience at half- time: 'That was lovely, darling, who was it by?' 'Oh, Mozart probably. It usually is.' Statistically, it isn't so far off the mark. The triumphs of Glyndebourne's recent history have, in my experience, been Janacek and Strauss; but Mozart is the raison d'etre of the house and the basis of its reputation. Hence the significance of the Mozart / Da Ponte series Glyndebourne has been running with Simon Rattle, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and several big-name directors: a landmark project meant to assimilate the house traditions with current thinking about period sound and opera- as-theatre (not necessarily consonant pursuits). Starting with Peter Hall's Figaro, then Trevor Nunn's Cosi, there is now a Don Giovanni from Deborah Warner; and like her predecessors Warner brings to the job the precision of spoken theatre. Warner expects her cast to behave like actors who incidentally sing as opposed to singers who incidentally act. She also has a reputation as a radical; her Giovanni was preceded by rumours about feminist manifestos and condoms, none of which proved true.

In fact, it was a conscientious attempt to rethink the opera from first principles and ask - as Warner had set her staging in modern dress - what sort of creature a late 20th-century Giovanni might be. Now this is not an easy question, because one of the qualities a Giovanni must possess is the authority of social status. As an ancien regime aristocrat he can clap his hands and relocate a wedding party, dispatching Masetto and mesmerising Zerlina. But as Warner has him - a rich lout in a dress shirt (and more often, out of it) - there's no basis for his power. Beyond the notion that he rules a gang of suited thugs (with an oddly gratuitous scene in which the stage band is coerced into playing for his party), it's all too unspecific. This Giovanni never has the stature or charisma to command; and the result is a void at the centre of the action, a great nothing around which the rest of the cast has to build an ensemble, not helped by a starkly abstract set design that looks stylish (like an early Ben Nicholson) but exposes the emptiness of what you see.

Paradoxically, the staging is actually loaded with ideas, some of them strong. The image of Giovanni being sucked down to hell through his own tablecloth will haunt my Glyndebourne picnics for years to come; and there was a genuine fascination in watching this familiar story go along unfamiliar paths, stripped of its certainties. For all the misplaced steps (including the party scene mentioned above, during which the guests jive to the minuet and contredanse - something I hope never to see on stage again), I was prepared to go along with it: until the graveyard scene, which sank with all hands. By this time it was clear that Warner's efforts to establish and people a 20th-century world for Giovanni hadn't worked. With the notable exception of Elvira, who becomes the sort of perkily out-of-her- depth ingenue you find in Woody Allen films, few characters ring true. Leporello is a complete blank. And try as they may to be contemporary, their only obvious cultural reference seems to be to the 1970s and Iris Murdoch. This is not engaging.

Simon Rattle takes a first- principles approach too, and doesn't fare much better. Rattle has a genius for modern repertory, but Mozart is different, and I didn't feel that the first- night performance touched the nerve of the piece. The orchestra was poorly balanced, its tempi, phrasing and ensemble ill-judged; and none of the great moments of the score really lifted off the page. Which was a pity, because in purely vocal terms Rattle had a fine cast: an enchanting Elvira from Amanda Roocroft, an adorably innocent Zerlina from Juliane Banse, and a distinctive Giovanni from Gilles Cachemaille, whose tone is blustery when forced, but otherwise darkly attractive, with a covered, velvet sheen. With John Mark Ainsley as Don Ottavio and a striking, young Masetto from Roberto Scaltriti, I wish I could declare this Giovanni more than an interesting failure. It wasn't. But there are worse things.

One of them is Elena Firsova's opera, The Nightingale and the Rose, which had its premiere at the Almeida Theatre last weekend. Ms Firsova, who now lives in Britain, is one of the leading mid-generation Russian composers, and her writing is notable for its discreet and delicately crafted lyricism: a voice that speaks in poignant, single-movement whispers rather than in sculpted affirmation. Her settings of the poet Mandelstam evince a keen response to text. But she doesn't seem to have much theatre sense, and The Nightingale drifts through Oscar Wilde's fairy-tale in terms too intimate and too fragile to bear the third dimension of a staging.

At the other end of the operatic scale comes Puccini's brash spaghetti western La Fanciulla del West, revived this week at Covent Garden with the sort of performance that in any other circumstances would have been a travesty but somehow, in this piece, was culturally correct. Like Andrew Lloyd Webber (who wrote Phantom of the Opera its honour) I've a soft spot for Fanciulla: its very brazenness is touching, an honest statement of grand opera in the raw. And at Covent Garden it is nothing less. Gwyneth Jones clings, just, to the nearside of the grotesque as she swoops through Minnie's chants d'amour with blood-curdling whiteness of tone and chases the evil sheriffo with a red-hot poker. Nicola Martinucci, firm but dry as Johnson, is just the sort of Italian tenor Richard Strauss would have cherished, pacing the stage (stiffly) in his leather trousers. Richard Buckley, the conductor, zaps the orchestra through a robust onslaught of big tunes and missed cues. And the highlight of Piero Faggioni's production is the old Morecambe-and-Wise snow- through-the-open-door routine, which repeats like a leitmotif throughout Act II. I loved every minute of it. And Justino Diaz gives a seriously strong performance as Jack Rance.

The theme of this year's Proms is nostalgia, reliving highlights of the past 99 seasons. So it was fitting that the star of Friday's opening concert at the Albert Hall turned out to be that great, veteran Wagner bass baritone, Hans Hotter - not exactly singing (he is 85) but as the narrator of Schoenberg's epic cantata, Gurrelieder. Of course, there were other contributors to this superlative performance: the icily glamorous Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, the glistening American tenor of Neil Breeden, Ann Murray's ravishing Wood-dove, and Andrew Davis proving himself, once again, the most versatile of conductors.

To get such clarity from the enormous orchestra and chorus (even when they tire toward the end) was a major achievement. But it was Hotter who touched the heart, declaiming Schoenberg's first essay in sprechgesang (speech-singing) with huge and unqualified conviction. In his retirement, Hotter has made a speciality of Gurrelieder and does it on the Decca recording under Chailly. How much longer, who knows? But no one who heard him on Friday will forget it.

'Giovanni' continues today & Fri (0273 813813); 'Fancuilla', Wed & Sat (071-240 1066).

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