Music: Orfeo as it was supposed to be

Nick Kimberley on classical
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The Independent Culture
Orfeo

Coliseum, London

Royal Concertgebouw Royal Festival Hall, London

London Philharmonic

Royal Festival Hall, London

When David Freeman brought his (now defunct) Opera Factory to Britain in the early 1980s, he would no doubt have been appalled to think that his productions might still be appearing in repertoire nearly two decades later. He strove for immediacy, involvement in the moment. He didn't set out to avoid repertoire stagings; such things simply weren't on the agenda.

One of the first operas he staged in Britain was for ENO. His 1981 production of Monteverdi's used an edition of the score prepared by John Eliot Gardiner and had Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the title role. Now, 18 years later, Freeman has revived it, and Rolfe Johnson conducts. The show remains among the most challenging and moving in the ENO programme, and it continues to work because it's an intimate ensemble show.

was first performed as entertainment for the Gonzagas in 17th- century Mantua, but Freeman has no interest in evoking courtly splendour. Instead designer Hayden Griffin has the stage bare but for rocks as seats and pedestals and rugs as a backcloth. The singers don't represent figures of ancient myth, nor 17th-century courtiers. Rather, they are in vaguely Eastern Mediterranean peasant costumes, and they are not singing an opera at us, but enacting a communal ritual of marriage (which is to say, sex) and death.

Some might complain that the specifics of the story are lost when nymphs and shepherds don't look much different from Apollo or Charon, but Freeman's stagecraft ensures that the storytelling is crystal clear. Elements of the drama are prefigured in the opening moments, and we even glimpse being dismembered by the Bacchantes, an episode missing from the score as it survives. The 21 singers perform both as accomplished soloists, and as a chorus which dances, and dances well, as if there might be real flirtations behind all the skipping and tripping.

The singing throughout is idiomatic without laying on the baroquerie with a trowel. John Mark Ainsley's , ardently lyrical yet with a steely centre to the voice, is a presence large enough to support the drama, modest enough to take his place in an ensemble performance. The tiny baroque orchestra fills the Coliseum with the eerie sounds of sackbuts, regals and theorbos, and Rolfe Johnson shapes the instrumental contours according to the singers' needs. No doubt history will eventually consign this production to the bin; for the moment it communicates with electrifying immediacy.

If the empty seats in the first half of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's concert last Wednesday are anything to go by, Webern and Berg are names that still put people off. But Riccardo Chailly had picked early, unforbidding works by both composers.

Webern's Im Sommerwind, written when he was 20, uses a very large orchestra. It's a piece that seems to reach an end several times over before finally deciding to finish. (Webern never authorised it for performance.) You might see it as a farewell to the 19th century, except that Webern felt no need to separate himself from the past; rather, it was his farewell to 19th-century gigantism. Chailly and his orchestra did full justice both to its brashness and its quasi-sylvan musings, but I wished they'd performed some of Webern's later pieces, in which hardly smaller forces are deployed with the kind of delicacy for which the Concertgebouw is famous. The orchestra made the most of the congested lyricism of Berg's Seven Early Songs, but soloist Barbara Bonney's slightly antiseptic tone seemed outside the material.

Bonney returned after the interval as soloist in Mahler's Fourth Symphony, where she was much more moving. There was plenty of swing in the opening movement, notably from the principal trumpet, whose contributions throughout were outstanding. And the string section was superb, at one moment filling the hall with gaudy lushness, the next barely disturbing the air with the most refined pianissimo. Bringing the symphony to a close, Bonney did not overplay the childish innocence, but brought an adult sensuality to Mahler's fantasy of asparagus and beans for all.

Last Sunday, Kurt Masur opened the London Philharmonic Orchestra's season with Brahms's A German Requiem. Masur looks very trim these days, and this was a trim performance. This one clocked in at just an hour, very close to the timing of alleged speed-merchant Roger Norrington's period instrument recording. Masur's performance didn't sound rushed. It had a sweeping intensity, not least in the choral sections, delivered with panache by the Royal Opera Chorus.

Masur's soprano soloist Christiane Oelze had a rather glassy sheen to the voice and was less inviting or impressive than baritone Thomas Quasthoff, who brought operatic, almost Verdian drama to proceedings. His is a commanding voice, capable of sternness but also softening into beseeching warmth. With the LPO's brass section in particular on top form, this was a radiant performance of a work that can be coldly uninvolving.

'': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), in rep to 18 October

Michael White returns next week

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