Music: Power without the glory

MICHAEL WHITE ON CLASSICAL MUSIC Der Freischutz Coliseum, London Porgy and Bess Royal Festival Hall, London Stephan Genz Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
History doesn't often reward those who try to recreate it. But ENO is trying hard in its new production of Weber's Der Freischutz, which reunites the two heroes of the company's so-called Powerhouse days, Mark Elder and David Pountney. Between them they drove the artistic policy of the Coliseum through the late 1980s and early 1990s. And during that period Der Freischutz was the one that got away: an opera frequently discussed and planned for, but never actually performed. Until this month.

It would have been - and I suppose still is - a gift for both these men. The gothick horror of the Wolf's Glen scene is something you'd expect Pountney to get his teeth into. The innocent, pre-Wagnerian German Romanticism of Weber's scoring is second nature to Elder. And in fairness, they do deliver an arresting show. No reading of Weber's cosy folk narrative that finds the opportunity for a naked woman to be chased across the stage by First World War troopers in gas masks could be otherwise. But actually it treads old ground in the way it remodels Weber's story as a myth of gender fear and sexual rites of passage. ENO's classic Rusalka did much the same, at a time when such ideas were fresh. These days they aren't.

Der Freischutz does, to some extent, invite this sort of imposition. It's a story where boy wants girl but has to win her in a shooting match. To improve his chances, he does a deal with the Devil for magic bullets. As deals with the Devil will, it goes wrong. And it would get worse except for the intervention of a saintly hermit, who saves the day but leaves the lovers bound to wait for a year before they tie the knot. That wait is interesting, and it gives Pountney his cue to turn the whole thing into the traditional operatic plot of the loving couple who aren't ready for each other yet - almost a Magic Flute.

Agathe, the girl, is clearly terrified not just of Max, the boy, but of the whole huntin'/ shootin'/ military culture he belongs to. Hence the naked woman and the gas masks. Max, reciprocally, is such a wimp (as played here by John Daszak) that he wouldn't know what to do with Agathe if he got her. And there's a strong suggestion that the whole business of the magic bullets is Agathe's fantasy of fear. That's why, presumably, she takes a passive part in it (you won't find this in Weber), surrending her body to the Wolf's Glen furnace where the bullets are extracted from her mouth in a process that's more dental than diabolical.

All this happens on a clean-cut set (Ian MacNeil) that quotes rather than gives you for "real" the visual details of German Romanticism. It's lit with an effective sharpness and intensity. The singing is broadly OK, with two good supporting roles from Gidon Saks as Kaspar and Lisa Milne (making a notable ENO debut) as Aennchen. Alwyn Mellor's Agathe has its moments, with just enough coloratura for the big Act III aria. And Mark Elder conducts with customary grace and seriousness of purpose. But for all its qualities, this Freischutz doesn't quite hit the target. Nor does it deliver the punch the Elder/ Pountney partnership once had. It revives the curiosity of those old Powerhouse shows, but not the life, the brilliance, the immediacy. Time moves on.

Not fast enough, though, for the Porgy and Bess playing at the Festival Hall last week, which made for one long drag of an evening. I feared the worst from this show - imported by Raymond Gubbay from the US - when I saw that no cast members, orchestra, director or conductor were named in the advance publicity. It looked as though Mr Gubbay didn't have much to sell. Nor did he. The cast I saw was pretty feeble. The orchestra turned out to be a tawdry pick-up job from Poland. The stage director was the lady who sang Bess (enough said). And the conductor would have had my sympathy - he was so limp, lost and inadequate - but for a claim in the programme that he had "frequently been compared to Mozart and Bernstein". Frequently compared for what, one wonders. Skill at cards? I can't believe it's anything to do with music.

Mercifully, a truly musical experience came along on Wednesday at the Wigmore courtesy of Stephan Genz. The stature of the young German baritone on mainland Europe became apparent to me this summer, when almost every foreign festival I visited seemed to have him as a soloist. He's only 26 but wonderfully mature in sound and manner. And although the earnest selection of Schubert and Wolf he sang at the Wigmore suggested that the voice is, at the moment, narrow - there's some work for him to do at both the top and bottom of his range - it's an outstanding instrument. Controlled, smooth, flexible and elegantly manicured. If anything it's sightly over- manicured, at the expense of personality (a touch cool at the moment). But I'm not complaining. This was singing of high order. And with handsomely persuasive playing too, from Roger Vignoles at the piano.

Finally a note on Opera Lab: the curious, important, pretty well unique and (at the moment) desperately impoverished venture that takes place around this time each year in the collegiate enclosure of a hidden Kentish farmhouse. It's a sort of singles group, but geared to creativity not concupiscence. Or that's the idea. Robert Saxton brings together a group of composers who want to write opera and a group of writers who want to be librettists. Over the course of 10 days they meet, pair off, and produce - in a supportive environment that provides, to hand, a conductor, director, choreographer, several pianists, and a group of singers. It starts with a few days of exercises in which the writers and composers get the measure of each other (and, no less, of the issues that arise when words and music collide); then they develop miniature projects which are finally performed to an invited audience. But the object of the exercise is not the product, it's the process. And of all the offbeat ventures in which I dabble every year, the Opera Lab process is probably the most interesting and valuable.

This year the composers ranged from established figures such as Diana Burrell to rising talents such as Morgan Hayes. And though the fragments of work-in-progress I heard were still grappling with first principles - like the need for clarity and the hard fact that words take longer to sing than to speak - they were at least alive with experiment and discovery. Which is what it's all about. Encounters between composers and librettists have usually been left to chance and mostly painful - which is one reason why so little new work ever makes it from the author's dreams onto the stage. Opera Lab's experiments in managing the encounter could well improve the odds. Its track record to date is promising. It needs support.

`Der Freischutz': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8200), in rep to 15 October

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