Music: It's fabulous up north

The Bartered Bride Opera North Flight Glyndebourne Opera Lab Kent
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Working in a narrow repertory and under constant pressure to say the same thing in different ways, opera directors tend to avoid the literal. And some kinds of literalism they avoid like a communicable disease. Wagnerian heroic nationalism - men in sheepskin rugs and Viking helmets - is a prime example. So is the romantic nationalism - or folksy kitsch - of Smetana. And the result? Evasions like the schoolboy humour of the Royal Opera Ring, reforging next week at the Royal Albert Hall, and the abstract absurdities of Scottish Opera's recent Dalibor. These are productions which are slyly smart, but which never once look their material in the face.

So it was good to go to Leeds this week and find that Opera North's The Bartered Bride is different and direct. Daniel Slater's entirely to-the- point production makes for one of the most enjoyable new shows I've seen for a long time. Bartered Bride is an open invitation to the world of winsome smiles and folkloristic cuteness. To a degree, the music demands it - although much of the Czech National colouring is more acquired than inherent. Opera North delivers something unequivocally Czech. It's rural and charming, but - and here's the difference - relocated to the 1970s: years when Russian rule and international bad taste combined with dreadful consequences throughout Eastern Europe. So the staging runs riot with nasty shoes, bad hair and cheap leather jackets. The text (in English, spiced up by David Pountney) is awash with jokes about hard currency and Comrade Brezhnev. Kecal, the marriage-broker, becomes a Party hack; Micha, the hero's father, a Prague businessman who works the system.

The danger is that it could all go the way of ENO's Elixir of Love (which had a similar totalitarian-state slant) and get too heavy for the fun to register. But no. The souffle lightness of the piece survives. It's very funny, and the perfect vehicle for Opera North whose strength is its ensemble work. The chorus are meticulously massaged into individual characters, their set-piece numbers turned into delicious comedy routines. The dances get a comparable treatment. And emerging from the crowd - with a disarming naturalness - are some delightful solo roles. Clive Bayley's Kecal is a joy. The warm, mezzo-ish colouring of Alwyn Mellor's Marenka is lovely. And I specially liked Iain Paton's Vasek: one of opera's many stuttering inadequates and a potential bore was done with enormous charm. A sort of Eastern European Albert Herring - and a light, neat, focused tenor sound that isn't big, but registers.

I ought to add that I find The Bartered Bride an over-valued score. It's portentously set up by the brilliance of an overture which counts among Smetana's finest work, but it rapidly subsides into meretricious nothings. So, full marks to Oliver von Dohnanyi, the Czech conductor (no relation to Christoph), whose purposeful and beefy musical direction gives the whole thing a suggested substance.

Substance, real or fake, is the missing ingredient in Flight. The new opera by Jonathan Dove opened the Glyndebourne Tour - at Glyndebourne - on Thursday and goes into the Festival proper next year. Flight takes place within an airport, and why not? It's only the contemporary equivalent to all those coaching-inn scenarios (like the opening of Manon) which provide the opportunity for characters to cross each others' lives and tell their stories with theatrical economy. In fact, the whole piece is the contemporary equivalent of something or other in standard operatic writing. Dove and his librettist April de Angelis know their business - intimately - and it shows. But that's the problem. Flight is an identikit opera, collated rather than created. The score is Britten, Bernstein and a lot of Adams, riding the relentless high of minimalist ostinatio figures. The story is Menotti (with a maybe-mystic refugee straight from The Consul) and Tippett (whose Ice Break also happens in an airport). And I'm not sure what that leaves to call original. In fairness, it's attractive music, easily- accessible and skillfully dramatic. There are nice performances - especially from Richard Coxon as a sexual ambivalent in transit - and a few design coups. But the staging (Richard Jones) is clumsy, and the whole package wafer-thin. It doesn't feel like an event.

But even thin new opera is eventful these days. So little new work ever makes it from the author's dreams to the stage; and the problems start up front, in the process of collaboration between composer and librettist. As often as not, it's a painful encounter which contributes to the way so much of opera history is written in blood. And yet it's something almost always left to chance. Or intuition. There is only one place, to my knowledge, where the first steps of the courtship dance between two disparate disciplines - words and music - are rehearsed and polished. And that's Opera Lab, the annual Kent-based workshop which I've eulogised before but nearly didn't get the chance to this year because it nearly didn't happen. Lack of funds. The usual story.

Opera Lab is an extraordinary venture. Housed on a remote Kent farm, it's a sort of house party: writers, singers and instrumentalists take part, under the tutelage of composer Robert Saxton, poet Ruth Fainlight, director-choregrapher Kenneth Tharp, conductor Christopher Austin, and the queen of contemporary vocal music, Jane Manning. Between them they make opera. On the spot. They start with exercises in the dynamics of setting a single line of given text - the possibilities of "I want you to go" have to be heard to be believed - and develop it into five-minute scenes which are knocked together into a basic show and performed to an audience. I've seen a number of these shows before, always with interest. But the quality on this occasion was beyond all precedent, a miracle of instant teamwork and indicative of current trends: the music was more lyrical than in the past, more grateful for the voices and with more than half an ear to Sondheim.

But at Opera Lab, it's not the show that counts so much as the process behind it:the discoveries made by composers about things like pacing, and by librettists about clarity. One of the high-profile composers taking part, Bent Sorendsen from Denmark, had arrived with an opera proposal from Danish radio under his arm; but he was not sure that he wanted it or knew how to execute it. I think he left a happier man. And so would many others if they had the chance to spend that week in Kent.

'The Bartered Bride': Leeds Grand (0113 222 6222), Fri to 13 October; then touring. 'Flight': tour details on 01273 813813.

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