MUSIC / Louder Lieder: Edward Seckerson reviews a grand Jessye Norman and Zauberflote in London

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The Independent Culture
Concert or state visit? Jessye Norman's first London recital in five years was both, of course. At prices that would once have bought you the Berlin Philharmonic, she glided, full sail, into the Festival Hall, a follow-spot illuminating her path to the piano. Then the meditation, eyes closed, head bowed, the coughers hopefully shamed into silence, the atmosphere building for the first song. This lady knows how to work a room. Even when the room's a 3,000-seater.

But then, Jessye Norman performances are not, by their very nature, intimate affairs. Everything about the manner, the enunciation, the facial responses, the countenance, is writ large. She'll scale down the sound, take the voice away exquisitely in a song by Schumann or Strauss, but still the largesse can turn a confidence into a proclamation. Word colour might be richly imagined but it's invariably over-gilded, too. This is Lieder singing in the grand (some would say arch) manner. So the more obviously 'operatic' settings fared best. Strauss's Ruhe, meine Seele was projected into this very public arena with fabulous command of all the elements, a mesmeric intensity of thought and feeling carrying the celebrated sound forward. It's still one of the great natural voices, double-cream from top to bottom. Only the uppermost extremity is vulnerable now. The mezzo colours are richer and more penetrating than ever: just the sound of the word ruhe ('rest') would touch the darkest recesses of any troubled soul.

Whether or not Messiaen can ever have imagined the crystalline vocalisation of his early Poemes pour Mi sounding quite this voluptuous is a moot point, but I'm quite sure that Schoenberg won't have envisaged this much rouge on the erotic cabaret of his Brettl Lieder. Still, no more pretence, Norman painted up the camp to high-camp and with lots of rude portamento, croony insinuations, and one not-so-subtle Dietrich allusion, she shamelessly courted the grotesque. And of course there was more - the encores; all of them crowd-stirring - by design. With Strauss's Zueignung she moved away from the piano (and her stalwart accompanist, Geoffrey Parsons) to take in, embrace, the entire auditorium, relishing the climactic ascent of the song like Ariadne back on Naxos. Then came the spirituals. The rest was adoration.

And there was no coming back to reality at the Royal Opera House on Monday night. Martin Duncan's new production of Mozart's Die Zauberflote (in association with Scottish Opera) came South. Past experience of Duncan's very particular theatre work set high expectations of the zany, the physical, the off-kilter, the truly magical. It wasn't quite to be. All the ingredients were there, but only half-baked. Ken Lee's kooky designs supplied most of the invention, elements of the East and the Masonic, of sci-fi and surrealism, tossed into a topsy-turvy toy-box of purples and oranges and infantile drop-cloths.

But that's as far as it went. The physicality, the humour, the drama of the show only fitfully complemented its look. Peter Coleman-Wright's Papageno looked as though he belonged - a smashing performance, droll, slightly fey, a bit off-the-wall. Sumi Jo's tiny Suzie Wong-like Queen of the Night was a little lost in this house. But there was a decent Tamino from Kurt Streit and singing from Amanda Roocroft that would definitely have persuaded Mozart to call the opera 'Pamina' - which he very nearly did. This voice is really blossoming. Andrew Parrott dispatched a blistering, high-profile account of the overture but thereafter failed to deliver what he promised. A bit like the show, really.