Music: The face that launched a thousand shrinks

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Mikroutsikos: The Return of Helen

Athens Megaron

Haitink: Mahler 9

Royal Festival Hall, SE1

L'invitation au voyage

St Johns Smith Square, SW1

Maria Callas and Nana Mouskouri aside, the Greek contribution to Western European culture has been more literary than musical, more ancient than modern. Naming three operas on Greek subjects isn't difficult. Naming three Greek operas on any subject is another matter; and so, even, is the naming of three Greek composers. Most of us would stall after Xenakis and Theodorakis. John Tavener doesn't count.

So it was a surprise last year when EMI issued a disc devoted to the music of Thanos Mikroutsikos: born 1947, and a public figure at home. Needless to say, it didn't sell. But listening to its easy-on-the-ear tonality - broadly reminiscent of contemporary Baltic music - you can understand EMI's gamble. And in a few months time they take another with the rush-release of an opera by Mikroutsikos, taken from a production which opened only last week in Athens. The piece is called The Return of Helen and, yes, it's one more vocal turn around the Trojan Wars. In the manner of Strauss's Die agyptische Helena, this is an opera about the aftermath of the wars, and the account that Helen gives of her part in them. And what's more, it comes with a contemporary spin. In Strauss, Helen is able to hide behind the excuse that it was all in the hands of the gods, and she was merely their plaything. In Mikroutsikos, she has acquired a 20th-century penchant for self-examination and taken the whole thing to her therapist. The narrative accordingly becomes a time- crossing conceit, as scenes with the therapist alternate with flashbacks to Helen the merciless beauty of Troy and Helen the fugitive in Egypt. And if that suggests a superficial gloss on the myth, the fact is that Mikroutsikos makes more of it than you'd expect. The three Helens - Trojan, Egyptian and In Therapy - are sung by three different and sharply specified voices: coloratura soprano, dramatic soprano and mezzo respectively. And the point of the whole piece is to chart the way these shards of a broken personality are brought together by the healing process of remembrance. In the final scene, Helen stops hiding behind gods and fate, accepts responsibility for her own actions, and unites with her other selves in an unnervingly effective trio. It's one of the most powerful examples of vocal writing I've heard in any recent opera, and it compensates for overlong and static writing in the scenes before. Fast music isn't this composer's strength. And neither, it has to be said, is subtlety of orchestration. In the big Trojan and Egyptian scenes he gets away with it through bluster. In the smaller therapy scenes, where the accompaniment is chamber scale, he doesn't. The textures there are raw.

But The Return of Helen is a fascinating piece, and good to hear - not least because it sets out to be real voice-based opera as opposed to an orchestral score with added declamation. That it comes steeped in operatic reference (to Janacek, Strauss, Verdi, Puccini, with an extended homage to Britten's War Requiem in the Trojan scene) would be irritating if it weren't so purposeful. The "takes" illuminate the narrative, and the free-flowing tonality that surrounds them is attractive, if not brilliantly original.

Above all, the piece is very smartly staged at the Athens Megaron. Completed only a few years ago, it is the defining statement of Greek ambition to join the running in Western European music. And it counts among the finest concert buildings in the world today: it beats anything in London. Although it is designed for concerts not opera (there's a vast hole in the ground beside it which the new Athens Opera House will eventually fill), the auditorium is adaptable, and houses Dimitris Papaioannou's strikingly good-looking show rather elegantly. With an almost totally Greek cast conducted by Alexandros Myrat, The Return of Helen is a happy experience that promises well for when the production transfers this Spring to Montpellier and Florence. There are no plans for London, apart from the discs; and how well Helen will stand up to purely aural scrutiny I'm not sure. But it's worth that gamble.

Back in Britain, Bernard Haitink affirmed his current ability to do no wrong in the eyes and ears of London audiences, with a packed house and ecstatic response to the Mahler 9 he summoned from the LPO last weekend at the South Bank. No one could begrudge him that response: it was a forceful reading of a long, emotionally complex score with broad-stretched phrasing that can be as tortuous as Proust. If Mahler makes one (often under-rated) demand above all else, it's a sense of formal clarity. And being the thorough, conscientious musician that he is, Haitink lays out the form of the piece as clearly as you're ever likely to hear it. But at the same time he downvalues the drama. His climaxes are cautious, the ensuing Mahlerian disintegrations a touch tidy-minded, and the opening bars don't register with the intensity, the sense of absolute importance, that the audience needs to feel. Matters improved in the second half of the Scherzo: the LPO positively bloomed. But there are moments in which a Bernstein, or a Tennstedt, would have screamed the text through a white-knuckle ride of emotional peaks and troughs. Haitink, by comparison, held back. But in Mahler, there are times when subtlety is not required.

St Johns Smith Square has a new series of French song running under the title L'invitation au voyage. It began with a study day, masterminded by Malcolm Martineau and Roderick Swanston, that was memorable for a remark made by Martineau about rubato - the temporal give and take of performance. In German Lied, he told a young singer, your pianist gives you time; in French melodie you have to steal it. The problem with Monday's opening recital in the series was that the performances were so under- energised, they rendered theft an academic prospect. It was like a bank leaving its doors open - and a pity, because Geraldine McGreevy's readings of Berlioz, Bizet and Faure were otherwise beautifully done. The series runs until March; I hope the pace hots up.

`L'invitation au voyage': St Johns Smith Square, SW1 (0171 222 1061), to 8 March.

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