MUSIC : Something rather promising in the state of Denmark

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The Independent Culture
TWELVE hundred years ago the Danish brought you rape and pillage; now it's bacon and pastries. These are the insignia of the settled, stable domesticity that makes Denmark a pleasure to visit - the same domesticity that created problems for the British opera administrator Elaine Padmore when she took over the Royal Danish Opera in 1993. Her brief was to shake the place up a bit, raise the standards, remove the dead wood (aka old and much-loved Danish singers), and things have clearly not been easy. Visiting Copenhagen this week, I asked someone active in Danish musical life what he had to say about Padmore. His only comment was: "She seems to have survived."

On the evidence, she seems to have survived rather well. Her contract has just been renewed; the quality of her productions is riding high (witness the Love For Three Oranges that came to London last summer); and her company is about to enjoy an unprecedented profile, as Copenhagen assumes the role of European Capital of Culture for 1996.

Like so much else in Copenhagen at the moment, the Culture Capital programme is be- ing run by a Brit, an expatriate architect called Trevor Davies. Although you may detect a note of national self-reference in the Danish Opera's opening contribution to the programme - Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet - the fact is this piece has precious little in the way of territorial identity at the best of times, and still less in the production it gets here from yet another Englishman, John Cox. He stages it as Victoriana, with Hamlet a Byronic Pre-Raphaelite who has wandered into one of his own paintings, and Ophelia an Elizabeth Siddal look-alike, wearing the long hair and Aesthetic Movement central parting familiar from all those solemn narrative canvases you find in the municipal galleries of Northern towns.

It could have been over- embellished, fussy; but against stark, clean-cut sets it works extremely well, and even manages to generate excitement which, for a lame old duck like Hamlet a la Ambroise Thomas, is an achievement. If you saw Opera North's recent production you'll remember that their (defeatist) solution was to play the piece at arm's length, as though it was something the cast was stuck with and could only laugh about. But at the Danish Opera it's done with absolute conviction and a real dramatic urgency that makes the piece feel better than it is.

It's also done with some distinguished singing - and this Hamlet has clearly been staged as a showcase for two of the outstanding young vocal talents Denmark currently has on offer. One is Inger Dam Jensen (1993 Cardiff Singer of the World), whose Ophelia offers a combination of brilliance, clarity and emotional truth that transcends the conventions of the mad scene. The other is Bo Boje Skovhus, the sensational (no other word) young Danish baritone whose Hamlet has a physical and vocal dynamism of unnerving strength. If you ever wondered why baritones prize this central role despite the floundering inspiration of the opera as a whole, get on a plane and see him do it. Failing that, listen to his Count in the new Abbado recording of Marriage of Figaro, which was one of my issues of the year for 1995. It's the next best thing.

The Royal Danish Opera also has a Parsifal that proclaims the company's honourable Wagner tradition. It's an old Harry Kupfer staging from the Seventies, but doesn't look its age. On the contrary, it looks sufficiently modern to spike the idea that styling in Wagner productions has changed at all in the past 20 years. What Kupfer did then, his successors do now. But as with the Hamlet, the focus of interest here is vocal - in the person of the Danish tenor Poul Elming, who takes the title role. Elming is one of the superlative Wagner tenors around today: not quite comprehensive in repertory command because he hasn't the top notes for Siegfried, but none the less a formidable Siegmund, Lohengrin and Parsifal. His stamina is exemplary: the firm, dark, baritonal foundation of the voice sustains the tone - it never noticeably flags or thins into a pitchless roar, even after hours on stage. And though his movement may be wooden and perfunctory, he can act - with the voice if not the body.

Back in London, ENO has eased itself into the new year with a revival of The Pearl Fishers: Philip Prowse's ageing Oriental-kitsch production that owes rather too much to the decor of a Bradford curry shop. I've never been convinced by this shabby, second-hand vision of the mystic East, and I'm irritated by Prowse's attempt to flesh out an anorexic storyline by inventing superfluous characters - necessarily mute but all too obviously foreground, and a terrible distraction. That said, though, the revival is well conducted by Emmanuel Joel and well sung by company tenor John Hudson, whose Nadir has a bright, bell-like resonance, with more discipline and staying power than he's shown on recent ENO appearances. A voice there with a lot to offer.

Otherwise, the place with everything on offer this week was the Purcell Room, where the annual PLG Young Artists series - a fast-turnover market of emergent virtuosity - was in residence. Of the performances I heard, the most immediately engaging came from Colin Boyle, a marimba player of extreme finesse and subtlety who came closer than anyone ever has to persuading me that the marimba is a viable solo instrument, with the expressive and tonal diversity to sustain a programme by itself. But then the PLG series does make a habit of uncovering the potential of instruments at the margins of the concert repertory. It was in a PLG series that most of us heard for the first time the mind-bending virtuosity of the accordion player James Crabb. And yet another PLG alumnus is the saxophonist John Harle, who, on Thursday at the QEH, gave the second performance of the score that launched a thousand letters of complaint after the Last Night of the Proms, Harrison Birtwistle's Panic. Played this time with members of the LPO, its brutality seemed more purposeful, less wanton, and not quite so relentless as before - partly, I suspect, because the scale of attack had been modified to suit a smaller space, but also because the (intermittent) lyricism of the saxophone writing was allowed more prominence. I don't doubt that the piece will survive as a "cause", but from this second exposure it already shows signs of outliving its notoriety.

'Pearl Fishers': Coliseum, WC1 (0171 632 8300), continues Wed. 'Copenhagen 96': call 0171 259 5959 for information.