MUSIC / If it's baroque, don't mend it: For 30 years the English Bach Festival has been sailing under false colours. Lina Lalandi admits all to Mark Pappenheim

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The English Bach Festival must be one of the biggest misnomers in musical history. It's not particularly English (though based in Belgravia, it's run by a Greek and spends most of its active life abroad), it doesn't do Bach, and it's certainly not a festival. What it is, and has been since the late 1970s, is an international opera company specialising in the recreation of the great 18th-century masterpieces of Rameau, Handel and Co in all their original glory - complete with period instruments, authentic costume and set designs, and historically-influenced movement and gesture. Since 1977 it has presented annual guest nights at Covent Garden, and it is there that it celebrates its 30th anniversary tomorrow evening with a performance of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride.

Thirty years ago, of course, the EBF name was not so inappropriate. Or was it? Lina Lalandi was then a striking young Greek harpsichordist with a penchant for Bach and Couperin in the days before there was much demand for them. A fact her agent was quick to register. 'Why couldn't you be a singer or something?' she remembers him complaining. 'What can I do with a harpsichord player?'

'And I woke up one night and thought, well, why don't we do something about that?' So she decided to start her own festival and put Bach at the top of the menu. But realising, she says, that 'you can't live on champagne alone', she made the daring decision to leaven the mix with a little modern music. Launched in Oxford in 1963, the EBF almost immediately belied its name by becoming Britain's most adventurous new music festival, offering a blend of the baroque and the contemporary that brought a dash of Continental colour to the insular British music scene.

One by one, Lalandi lured all the leading lights of the European avant-garde over to Oxford. The 82-year-old Stravinsky came in 1964 (and Lalandi proudly displays a signed photograph of him and herself - 'My love scene with Stravinsky,' she jokes) and two years later returned to conduct his Oedipus Rex and to become the festival's second president (Albert Schweitzer was the first). Lalandi gave Xenakis his first major British exposure in 1966, brought Messiaen over in 1967, presented a four-day festival of Stockhausen in 1971 and premiered the works of Skalkottas, Ligeti, Dutilleux and many others across the years. Leonard Bernstein succeeded Stravinsky as president and conducted EBF forces in a classic recording of his predecessor's Symphony of Psalms (now reissued on CD).

The press loved both the festival and its founder. As early as 1964 the Sunday Times was enthusing, 'Since Zuleika Dobson, who has commanded a wider allegiance than this imperious maid of Athens?' Seven years later it was dubbing her 'a thinly-disguised Greek goddess'. The other critics, though less fulsome, were equally enthusiastic.

But the public, Lalandi admits, were not so easily won over. A Xenakis concert in New College was met with total incomprehension: 'I think it was absolutely the wonder of wonders - what is this?' Worse, when she brought Messiaen over to play his Visions de l'Amen in the Playhouse, almost nobody came: 'There was pounds 27 box-office - it was something fantastic.'

Eventually she decided to shift her activities to London. And it was there, in 1974, that she presented her first Rameau opera, a concert version of Les Indes Galantes at the Banqueting House, Whitehall. She followed that up in 1977 with a fully-staged version of La Princesse de Navarre at Covent Garden, the first of the EBF's annual visits there. She has since revived all bar two of Rameau's tragedies-lyriques. So she was understandably aggrieved when a senior national critic, who really ought to have known better, hailed City of Birmingham Touring Opera's recent staging of Les Boreades as the first professional production of a Rameau opera in Britain.

It can't have helped that Graham Vick's CBTO production was provocatively post-modern. For, if there's one thing Lalandi abhors, it's the whole 'Power House' school of opera direction - 'all those funny comics from ENO' - with their kabuki-style Mozart and space-age Wagner. 'Honestly] To say that you don't take notice of what the composer says, of his instructions, as if he doesn't know what he was talking about] I'm now trying to be, I don't know if the evangelist, but at least the battle-axe of interpreting the composer's intentions, whether he's called Xenakis or Couperin. There's nothing more than that. And when it says in the score exactly what's happening - 'They come in bringing garlands' or something like that - it's all there, so why do something else?'

When it comes to baroque opera, Lalandi's efforts to recapture the composer's original intentions go well beyond what is written in the score. She has scoured the print collections of the Bibliotheque National and the Opera in Paris to unearth original costume and set designs and personally supervises their recreation, priding herself on using only the finest materials for these outlandish outfits, with their extravagantly plumed head-dresses and 'lampshade' tutus (for the men) and 'bell' skirts (for the women). When she revived Gluck's Alceste, she succeeded in tracking down the designs for the original Paris production, and as she says, 'If it's good enough for Gluck, it's good enough for us.'

Times have certainly changed and Lalandi now seems as happy researching the cut of Vestris's old ballet frocks as she once was busying away at the cutting edge of contemporary music. She sees no contradiction. 'I'm the one who made contemporary music, who is for progress, for change. But when it comes to something which is a classic, you can't just alter the Parthenon and paint things on it, or take an old painting and just put moustaches on.'

She has no illusions about the limits of historical revival and certainly makes no claims for authenticity. 'It's a stupid word. It's pretentious and it's untrue. What is authentic? You can't absolutely do exactly what is there. What I mean by our work is passing on the composer's intentions to the public. Interpreting is the word.'

She simply cannot understand how the same critics who welcome the interpretative whimsy of a Sellars or a Schaaf can also praise her faithful reproduction jobs. Yet they do. This Iphigenie attracted universally good reviews when it was new last year (Stephen Johnson, in this paper, hailed it as 'a treat for eyes and ears'). And, unlike the old Oxford days, public and critics appear united in their enthusiasm. As Lalandi says, 'The people, when they see a beautiful show, there is just no doubt, it's a success.'

Yet, despite that success, the historical style has yet to catch on. Lalandi is happy to bide her time. She's always been a pioneer, she says, and, along with Messiaen, Xenakis et al, she also gave Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Vienna Concentus Musicus their first UK date - 'and now baroque instruments have won the day'. Baroque staging, she trusts, will not be far behind.

It will take time, however, for the opera world to relearn the language - a lost language of gesture, dance and design. And also perhaps to unlearn a few things - such as the current 'olde- worlde' style of early music singing. As she says of the Monteverdi Orfeo which she is planning for Covent Garden next year, 'Don't misunderstand me, we will have good voices - but not the ones which are supposed to be the good early music ones. Because I don't see why an Italian opera could ever have somebody who had no voice, even in Monteverdi's time. Because a choirboy style is for a choir, it's not for opera.'

EBF itself has built up a regular team of seasoned stylists over the years, from conductors and soloists to stage management and electricians. 'And that, of course, is a wonderful unity. Our strength is that we are a total show.'

Total show? The truth is that it's really the Lina Lalandi Show, but that historic misnomer is now too familiar to change. And for every call she gets from someone wanting to appear 'in her festival', she gets several more, like the one that interrupts our conversation, from singers keen to take part in her operas. This one's from a leading Monteverdi stylist who has heard rumours of the Covent Garden Orfeo and wants to be considered for the title role. 'But we don't want him,' Lalandi whispers. 'He's one of those 'non-singers' - you know, Squeak] Squeak] I have no patience with them.'

'Iphigenie en Tauride': 7pm tomorrow, Royal Opera House, Covent Gdn, WC2 (071-240 1066 /1911)

(Photograph omitted)