Music: Not only the stage is empty

Diary of One Who Vanished National Theatre, London Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Barbican, London
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In these desperate times of fin de siecle junketing and Tracey Emin's bed, we seem to need "events" to celebrate, and almost anything will do. Such an "event" materialised on Wednesday at the National Theatre (in collaboration with ENO) and if ever a thing had been set up to be a Big Deal, this was it. Janacek's Diary of One Who Vanished was to be directed by the fashionable Deborah Warner, sung by the incomparable Ian Bostridge, with a new English translation commissioned from the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. The production - steeped in column-inches of publicity - was passing through London on an international tour that takes in Dublin, Paris and New York. The first-night audience was noticeably glossy, as was the programme, which listed a whole army of assistants, deputies, designers, lighting men and music staff involved in this grand undertaking. Well, I hear you sigh, that's opera. It was ever thus.

But hang on. Who said this was opera? Diary of One Who Vanished is a 30-minute song cycle for tenor and piano. Certainly it has dramatic possibilities, which Janacek acknowledged by suggesting that it be performed "in semi- darkness and, if possible, with reddish lighting to heighten the erotic mood". It also calls for four supporting voices, three of them offstage, which add depth and texture to the story that runs through the songs: a story of a farm boy roused to passion by a gypsy girl with whom he runs away. But the supporting voices don't have much to do: it's still essentially for tenor and piano. And what Warner, her assistants, deputies et al have imposed on it is futile, empty and depressingly pretentious.

Empty is the word, for the curtain rises on a stripped-back-to-the-bone stage very like the one we had for Warner's Royal Opera Turn of the Screw but with a piano centrally positioned. Very little happens: Bostridge skulks around the piano in a state of concert undress, whittling a stick (the rural touch), while mezzo Ruby Philogene, in a contemporary jeans-and-T-shirt take on gypsy wear, pads slowly around him - in defiance of Janacek's specific instructions that she shouldn't appear until she sings, and that she should leave the platform when her few bars of music are finished. Janacek was right. To have her pointlessly in view the whole time actually diminishes her contribution to the piece.

When something does happen, it's either fatuous (a passing reference to laundry, and assorted knickers fall from the sky), gratuitous (Bostridge writhing underneath the piano, sometimes with Philogene), or both. Occasional images of blindness flash up on a video screen to signal the idea of sexual repression waiting for its moment of release. But otherwise there's nothing here to reinforce the substance of the text. For that, you're thrown back on your programme which comes illustrated with helpful photographs of Bostridge in farmyard attire pretending to plough a field.

The silliness of all this you could laugh off, but the falsehood you can't. The only purpose in staging Janacek's songs could be to intensify their emotional charge, and that's what this show pretends to do. But in truth, it does the opposite. The focus, sharpness and intensity you'd get from a conventional, concert-hall performance (where formalities are designed to give you just that) is squandered. So, alas, are the outstanding talents of the two main artists.

Philogene seems to have been cast more for her figure than her voice (she sounds like an embryonic diva, not a gypsy girl), and the offstage chorus-trio barely register except for the feebleness with which they sing their couple of measures. But anyone who reads this column regularly will know how much I admire Ian Bostridge and his pianist Julius Drake. The cultivated, shapely, live intelligence of that unearthly voice is one of the wonders of British music-making today. Its beauty can move even a critic to tears. And the strong, muscular but subtle musicality of Drake's accompaniment is its ideal companion. Between them, Drake and Bostridge on the platform at the Wigmore Hall would have delivered 10 times the performance they did with Deborah Warner's videos and dropping pants. The drama of the Diary is internal. It needs no accessories.

I can understand why Bostridge trusted Warner to take him on this particular journey. When they worked together on the Royal Opera Screw it was a momentous collaboration that no one who saw it could ever forget. But staging song cycles is a dangerous activity. They prove resistant. And I doubt if anyone who saw the last attempt in London - Neil Bartlett's preening production of the Britten Michelangelo Sonnets - could forget that either.

Unfortunately, it's been a bad week all round for the non-conventional staging of music in London. At the Barbican William Christie brought his Arts Florissants over from France for a semi-staging of Lully's comedy- ballet Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. And all it did was prove, once more, how difficult it is to find a way to make this sort of 17th-century repertory accessible to modern audiences.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is actually a play with music and - in the manner of Purcell's slightly later semi-operas - the spoken word is dominant, with all the main roles allotted to actors. The music, although integrated into the action, is more decorative than decisive: a matter of choruses, dances and the odd song, largely incidental to the narrative. So extracting the music from the surrounding text would never make much sense. But on the other hand, the music and the text together would go on for hours.

Christie's solution is to reduce the text to token length with the support of a few basic stage movements from his singers and dancers. And had the length really been token, it might have worked. But it wasn't. Nor was it remotely funny in the hands of two ham actors, or visually effective as put together by Christie's regular collaborator Anna Yepes. She's a dancer/ choreographer. The job needs an experienced director.

That said, when the music came (more in the second half than in the first) it came with charm and interest. These were the first stirrings of French operatic style; and in Bourgeois Gentilhomme they include the sparkling little Turkish march given a second wind in the film Tous les Matins du Monde, and a concluding sequence of pastoral love-songs that might almost have come from the heart, had Lully possessed one. Grasping, wheeler-dealing and rapacious, he stands proud among the utterly odious men of music history.