Music: It's a brilliant week for Britopera

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The Independent Culture
Peter Grimes

Welsh National Opera, Cardiff


English National Opera, London


Royal Albert Hall, London

Good opera seems to run like buses: rarely, then in pairs. It ran true to form this week when, after months of waiting for anything of stature from a British company, along came Parsifal at ENO with WNO's right behind: two new productions of such quality and resonance that, at a stroke, they make the UK opera scene look almost healthy. Factor in the smiles all round at Tuesday's topping-out ceremony for the redeveloped Royal Opera House, and you could be forgiven for forgetting what a grisly mess it's been for such a long time.

The Grimes, to borrow an old fishing metaphor, is filleting: a tough, compact, hard-hitting show, but with what martial arts enthusiasts might call a beauty in the punch. Each blow strikes home with devastating eloquence: well-aimed, well-timed, and typical of Peter Stein, the German director whose stock has fallen in his own country but who remains one of the great eminences of modern theatre everywhere else. During the past 12 years he's given WNO several landmark shows - Otello, Falstaff and Pelleas. To my mind, this new Grimes belongs beside them in the pantheon.

The surprising thing is that, despite an entirely German production team, it's a site-specific show, set on the Suffolk coast. The sets are slightly stylised, but with nothing like the abstraction of Tim Albery's ENO approach. What happens on them is conventional: not far removed from what you might have seen at Sadler's Wells in 1945. But Stein grabs the conventions by the throat and shakes the life back into them. Standard routines recapture their intended sharpness. Problematic ones, like the door-in-the-pub scene and the cliff descent from Grimes's hut, are sorted out. And the great choral massings are so powerful they left me - I admit - struggling with tears during Acts II and III.

On the debit side, Stein plays the Prologue and orchestral Interludes against a neon-lit safety curtain that I'd rather not have seen. And he's too ready to spotlight minor characters, and the humour in the text; most of the jokes in Grimes are unintentional. But it's a fine cast, with Donald Maxwell's Balstrode a youngish, laid-back sea-dog; Janice Watson's Ellen an attractive, not yet homely widow. Though John Daszak hasn't the full, heroic vocal range for Grimes (it's weak on top), he still makes one of the most compelling and convincing stabs at the role I've ever seen, accommodating the poet-brute duality of the character in a desperate innocence that does justice to both. A big man, insistently placed by the production in contexts that restrict or emphasise his bulk, he moves like an animal in a cage, inadequate but dangerous. You fear and feel for him in equal measure.

As for the music, Carlo Rizzi conducts with a half-crazed ferocity that isn't always fully formed but is incredibly exciting. It tightens and releases the tension on a Verdian scale appropriate to the Grand Operatic tradition in which this piece sits. His orchestra delivers the sweep, hurl and squall in Britten's score with relish. The chorus is magnificent. In short, this Grimes is a decisive triumph - not least for the composer, whose unnerving genius shines through every measure of it.

ENO's new Parsifal serves the genius of Wagner more selectively, with an interventionist production that follows fashion in trying to save the piece from the ideas behind it. Like most Wagnerian myth-making, Parsifal is essentially a medieval mystery-play burdened with late-19th-century neuroses. It's so ambiguous that the interpretative possibilities are vast. But whatever you make of it, the stench of anti-semitism, misogyny, occultish frauds on Christianity and other elements precursive of the Third Reich is there - which is why latter-day directors, especially Germans of conscience, usually work hard to stifle it. As with the WNO Grimes, the production team here is German to a man (or woman), led by Nikolaus Lehnhoff with designs by Raimund Bauer.

Their chief ploy is to de-Teutonise the whole thing: Wagner's community of warrior-monks are relocated east to Manchuria and divested of military power. Pathetic, fragile, helpless, these Knights of the Grail flounder about a set that looks, as ENO sets tend to, like a Conran restaurant with subsidence. They're not even left with much of that dodgy religion to fall back on. The ceremonial of the Grail is token, because the needs of this community are more societal than spiritual. We are at a millennium wake, lost in the emptiness and isolation of a fin-de-siecle people. The miracle of Parsifal, who bounds into this world like an aboriginal bandit, is that he is not isolated. He feels the suffering of others, and thereby fulfils the ultimate imperative of our own fin de siecle: to connect.

What Lehnhoff's does here is illuminating, thoughtful, serious. It works. Though it fails to deliver the expected grandeur of design, it works particularly well in the last Act where he follows the parallel healing of Amfortas and baptism of Kundry by allowing the king to die and the penitent to live. Traditionally it's the other way round; Lehnhoff presumably wants to suggest a clean break with the old order. And why not?

Some members of the first night audience were so upset by all this that they booed. Blindly, I'd say. But whatever controversies dog the staging, the singing - and the playing -is another matter. It's superb, the tone set by the solid warmth of Kathryn Harries's sumptuous Kundry and the lithe, hard-edged projection of Kim Begley's world-class Parsifal. Gwynne Howell's measured pace and clear-projected diction made effortless work of Gurnemanz's massive monologues. And Peter Sidhom is a handsomely exotic Klingsor.

The star of the show, though, is Mark Elder, who draws the best sound you'll have heard from ENO's orchestra and chorus since - well, since Mark Elder last conducted them in Wagner. By saying that I mean no slight to Paul Daniel: just that Elder seems uniquely to have the measure of these musicians and, increasingly, of Wagnerian conducting. Sometimes he's too prepared to sacrifice intensity for supple smoothness - and to tone down the big gestures that signal like beacons through the score. But he has style, assurance, drama at his fingers. What he does here is extremely fine. And so, by the way, is ENO's new singing translation commissioned from Richard Stokes. Apart from the infelicity of rendering Kundry's "dienen, dienen" (her only words in Act III) as "service, service" (which makes her sound like an impatient hotel guest) he marshals the obscurities of Wagner's text into comparative, and very singable, directness. No small task.

Finally in this good-news week, I can report that even Raymond Gubbay's operas-for-the-people at the Albert Hall are looking up. His new Tosca is a distinct improvement on what has gone before (it could only be so), with the impressive Susan Bullock in the title role, a decent Cavaradossi from John Uhlenhopp, acceptable conducting from Peter Robinson, and amplification that, though it still gives the voices an ugly bathroom metallicism, is comparatively subtle. However ... Tosca remains a matter of intimate exchanges which get lost in this immense space with nothing in the way of set. The only thing that might commend the piece to arena treatment - Act I's ecclesiastical finale - falls flat in the hands of a director, David Freeman, whose strengths have always been in small-scale, radical theatre. Sweeping Panavision gestures aren't his metier. But then, nor (you would have thought) is Gubbay. They make an odd couple.

'': Oxford Apollo (01865 244544), 2 & 5 March. 'Parsifal': ENO, WC1 (0171 632 8300), Tues & Fri, and in rep to 19 March. 'Tosca': RAH, SW7 (0171 589 8212), to Saturday.