MUSIC / Triumph over the absurd

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IF VERDI hadn't done quite nicely out of opera, thank you, he could have made a living from second-hand car sales: chief requirement, the ability to package and deliver dubious material with absolute conviction. And in all the core Verdi repertory there is no material more dubious than Il Trovatore, with its risibly contrived plot, dramatically outrageous back- narrations ('Tell me the story of how Grandma got burnt at the stake, mother', 'Well, son, it was like this . . .'), and its forgetful gypsy who throws her baby on the bonfire by mistake (easily done, of course).

But Trovatore survives - indeed, flourishes - in performance because it transcends its own absurdity, swept forward by a sense of urgency and unremitting tunes. Italians have a word for this: they call it insistenza. A stage director's job in Trovatore is, similarly, to insist: to clinch the deal, time and again - which is exactly what Inga Levant manages to do in her new Opera North production. With designs by Charles Edwards that set the action in bare, black spaces lit by single hanging lights (or from below, through craters in the floor), it owes allegiance to the Alden brothers school of theatre. Should you have forgotten the civil war background to the opera, Levant reminds you with persistent images of rowdy, trenchcoat militarism. But she's less perverse than either of the Aldens. Where they would probably embellish the story, she cleans it up, smoothing out the messy details of unseen events that link the scenes,

and binding the whole thing

together with recurring visual motifs of fire.

In other words, she doesn't pass coyly over the baby-burning business but shouts it from the rooftops - much as Verdi's score does, in its emphatic reliance on Azucena's incendiary cavatina, 'Stride la vampa'. Azucena in fact becomes the central character in the piece, with two commendable consequences. First, it makes plenty of Lebensraum for Sally Burgess, who is perhaps too light and too young for the role but none the less magnificent in her sheer animal intensity: a lithe and brilliantly acute performance. Second, the focus on Azucena takes some of the heat, as it were, off the other principals, with thoughtful production work that exploits their virtues and accommodates their limitations. For example, Edmund Barham is on epic vocal form as Manrico, zapping the house sideways with 'Di quella pira' in terms that any Italian would recognise as the real thing: immediate, full-bodied and from the heart. And yet, as always, he's a rotten actor, and can't move convincingly across the stage. So what does Levant do? She keeps him still and - even better - ties him up throughout the last scene. An inspired solution. And there are comparable solutions to the mixed blessings of Katerina Kudriavchenko's vocally restrained but well formed Leonora and Ettore Kim's tightly compacted Conte di Luna.

With impressive choral singing and a muscular sense of forward movement from Paul Daniel (who conducts as the Home Secretary encourages us all to walk, with a purpose) this Trovatore is a handsome piece of work, proving that Opera North's strengths don't just lie in offbeat repertoire.

Sally Burgess features on one of the prize discs (Delius's Sea Drift, Chandos) in the Gramophone Awards, presented on Thursday. It was gratifying to see so many of the laurels going to recordings that really deserve them: Britten's Gloriana (Decca), Koechlin's The Jungle Book (RCA), Samuel Barber's Complete Songs (DG), Robin Holloway's Second Concerto for Orchestra (NMC). John Eliot Gardiner was Artist of the Year; Klaus Tennstedt, still looking fragile after a year and a half's sick-leave from the podium, took the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The only conductor who picked up two awards was Michael Tilson Thomas (both for Bernstein's On the Town with the LSO), and Tilson Thomas and the LSO were in action at the Barbican last week for another instalment in their Mahler symphony cycle. I wasn't sure at first why London needed such a thing: we are fast approaching the point at which it would be good to hear less Mahler rather than more, and it was not so very long ago - 1985 - that the LSO had its big Mahler / Vienna festival. But that was under Abbado and it was enormously successful: a turning point in the orchestra's fortunes. So there is probably an element of challenge in Tilson Thomas's decision to mark his final season as LSO music director by revisiting old ground; and it's proving effective.

His Mahler doesn't have the grandeur of Abbado's; it belongs more to the wrung-nerve tradition of Leonard Bernstein. But Tilson Thomas is less self- indulgent, more controlled than Bernstein; and on Wednesday at the Barbican the panoramic first movement of the Third Symphony - one of Mahler's less successfully stretched structures - was delivered with an iron grip that rarely allowed the tension to drop. Fighting the invitation Mahler offers to nostalgia, everything was rooted in the present. Entries were alert, bitingly keen, spring-loaded with the promise (not, alas, often fulfilled) that this would be the moment of resolution in the score. With the LSO's bright, forward-sounding brass and Nathalie Stutzmann as a distinctive contralto soloist, this performance didn't end my doubts about the true worth of Mahler's Third, but it certainly made the hour and 40 minutes of it pass with honour.

The turning point of Donizetti's not-so-historical opera Maria Stuarda is a meeting of Maria (Queen of Scots) and Elizabetta (of England) that never actually happened but makes tempestuous theatre. In Stefanos Lazaridis's new production for Scottish Opera, which opened in Glasgow on Friday, it does literally turn - on a partitioned revolve that keeps Mary and Elizabeth spinning round each other through the piece like figures in a weather house. The message is that hell hath nothing like a pair of queens in conflict when the odds are balanced evenly between them; and Lazaridis delivers his message with style and eloquence. He doesn't read the piece deeply, but the staging has a focus that you get perhaps only when a director is, as here, his own designer.

Vocally, however, there's no semblance of a fair fight. Elizabeth is sung by a doll-like Japanese soprano, Michie Nakamaru, whose short-breathed phrasing and swallowed tone is no match for the viscous vocal sheen of Yvonne Kenny's Mary: a delectable performance, noble, self-possessed but with the vulnerability of someone clinging to a tarnished innocence.

Richard Armstrong conducts an uncommonly complete version of the score and with sympathy. The big moments don't quite carry enough impact; but as a matter of style I suppose he's entitled to make the point that this is Donizettian bel canto, not Risorgimento Verdi.

'Trovatore': Grand, Leeds (0532 456014), Wed and Fri, then touring to Sheffield, Nottingham and Manchester. 'Maria Stuarda': Glasgow Theatre Royal, 041-332 9000, Wed & Sat.

(Photograph omitted)