MUSIC / More than an average wind-up

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The Independent Culture
You wouldn't expect a stage director like Harry Kupfer, scourge of the old East German Komische Oper, to swallow the Romantic dream; and his production of Berlioz's Romantically dreaming La Damnation de Faust at Covent Garden does nothing of the sort - which is why it drew a dissonance of boos and cheers (equally fierce) out of its first- night audience.

This Faust is damned not for consorting with the devil but for going to the theatre: in other words, for the offence of escapism. Kupfer presents him as a down-and-out in a derelict opera house, the last refuge of bourgeois fantasy, reproduced here in a set design that mirrors the actual auditorium in front of it and is clearly meant to stir the withers of the actual audience with self-recognition. This Faust is one of us, an opera-goer gone to seed. And at the end, when he has passed through an exhaustive operatic catalogue of passion, tragedy and terror, he is left alone on stage with nothing but a mystery object that turns out to be . . . a wind-up gramophone. Herr Kupfer signs off with a Brechtian jolt: that's all it was, folks - music. All the agony and anguish you've pretended to be living for the past two hours and 20 minutes (without interval), just noise out of the air.

Now this is interesting, but it is not Berlioz. And you might argue that if Kupfer had so little sympathy with the composer's intentions he should have turned Faust down rather than take it on for a fight. But then, to stage this piece at all is to ignore what Berlioz wanted. La Damnation de Faust was written for concert performance, not for the theatre. It was only taken into operatic repertory after Berlioz's death. So there really is no high moral ground to be claimed here; and for all his digressions into irony and cynicism, Kupfer delivers. The production is strikingly theatrical, loaded with ideas and a degree of spectacle (designed by Hans Savernoch) that should sweep the next awards round for its sheer technical achievement. When the top tears off the stage 'auditorium' at the moment of damnation, it reduces even music critics to open- mouthed amazement.

So, occasionally, does the singing. Samuel Ramey, an experienced Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust, takes to Berlioz's counterpart with flawless ease and an alluring vocal presence: every inch the devil in the brain of every opera-lover. Olga Borodina, emergent megastar of the Mariinsky Opera in St Petersburg, is a wonderfully precise but warm-textured Marguerite. Jerry Hadley triumphs over bad French and embarrassing attacks of reverie to be a fluent and engaging Faust. And Colin Davis has a command of the Berlioz idiom, with all its stylistic and colouristic subtleties, that few conductors could match. La Damnation hasn't played at the Garden since 1933. Its return is an event in every sense.

Not so the return of Donizetti's La Favorita which Welsh National Opera engineered in a new production by Rennie Wright at Cardiff last weekend. Favorita was a fixture of late-19th-century repertory that fell from fashion in the 20th and is now barely known in Britain except as the source of some fine dramatic-mezzo arias. So I was pleased to see it and thought it basically strong, although butchered by adaptation from an original French libretto into a later Italian one. WNO sing it in Italian, which is where the problems start.

But they get worse with the production. Favorita is set in 14th- century Spain and concerns one of those archetypally doomed opera-heroines, a tart with a heart who dies for love. The issue is that she is desired by both the king (who should know better, being married) and a young monk (who should know better, being a monk). Conflicts of honour and perceived betrayal ensue with tragic consequences. Or at least, they would be tragic if this staging didn't set them in a nowhere-land of second-hand stylistic cliches where nothing really matters or convinces. It looks chic and, to begin with, impressive: a black, shiny, stepped set, closely lit through gauze so characters appear out of the darkness suddenly and in what seems like mid-air. But as it proceeds, the ingredients get uncomfortably familiar and you realise that they amount to a warehouse of old ideas, cosmetically recycled from old productions. Donizetti's agreeably complex characters turn into caricatures who fall on their knees when they can think of nothing better to do. They exhibit no real interest in each other, or even in themselves. Geoffrey Moses delivers a dire warning of the terrors of hell as though it were a section of the telephone directory.

Carlo Rizzi's energised conducting saves the day, and the lead voices are strong. Bernadette Cullen's Leonora is firmly controlled, Bonaventura Bottone's Fernando fulsomely fruity at volume. But Bottone almost always sings at volume. The dynamic needs more shading and the tone less weight, I think, to meet the style requirements of the role.

In a busy week for modern British music, the big crowd-pull was the Festival of Britten which packed the Barbican for an archivally important performance of Britten's Violin Concerto - played by Mark Lubotsky who made not only the famous Decca recording of the piece under Britten himself but an earlier Melodya recording, little known, under Kyril Kondrashin. But there was also a week-long festival at the Royal Academy of works by distinguished former students: an old boys' reunion which in all respects but gender demonstrated the catholicity of what the RAM turns out, from soft-sell minimalism to soft-porn rock. So many composers were played that few of them appeared in more than snapshot, whereas the success of past RAM festivals has been their in-depth focus on a single figure. But the quality and interest were still high; and as always, the remarkable thing was that this student venture maintained its own strong profile against the professional competition in London.

Part of that competition was Peter Maxwell Davies at the RFH conducting his own Worldes Blis: an orchestral juggernaut whose slow, massive progression from transparent austerity to sonic barrage made such tough demands on its initial 1960s audience that it acquired a reputation as a concert-killer. Wednesday's was a rare hearing and still tough, but perhaps with more appeal for 1990s ears attuned to slow massivity through Tavener, Gorecki and the holy minimalists. This reading by the RPO certainly revealed more radiant qualities than I remembered, and Davies clearly thinks the time is right to relaunch it. Worldes Blis is about to be recorded, by the same performers, and Boosey & Hawkes has just issued a new study score. It takes a magnifying glass and several aspirin to follow its complexities, but a degree of discomfort is appropriate preparation for so anguished and sharp- nerved a piece.

'Faust' continues tomorrow & Wed (071-240 1066); 'Favorita' Thurs, in Liverpool (051-709 1555).

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