Music: Verdi festival? Which Verdi festival would that be?

Un Giorno di Regno Royal Festival Hall, London Verdi: Requiem Royal Festival Hall, London Anner Bylsma Assembly Rooms, Bath Raphael Wallfisch Assembly Rooms, Bath
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The Independent Culture
See you in December," said the Royal Opera's press person as she handed me my tickets; it wasn't until she added "in the new house" that I caught her meaning. The batch of Royal Opera concerts at the Royal Festival Hall last week represented the last London will hear from the company until Covent Garden reopens - refurbished and no doubt resplendent - on 6 December. So they mark the official passing of the wilderness years: the anni horribili of life on the road. They also represent, one hopes, the end of the many climb-downs and withdrawals we have seen since 1997.

Verdi's early comedy Un Giorno di Regno was planned as a full staging, but arrived on Monday as a concert - packaged with a couple of others into what the Royal Opera is calling "A Verdi Celebration". Reading between the lines, this is in fact a holding exercise for the company's long-standing "Verdi Festival", which was set up with the intention to perform the composer's 28 stage works in staggered instalments and have it all complete by the centenary of his death in 2001. That clearly isn't going to happen now; and whether the festival has any future at all is something on which the Royal Opera doesn't like to be drawn.

The good news, though, is that this little batch of Verdi concerts has been of the exemplary standard we've come to expect from the Royal Opera's concert operas in the past few years. They've made a virtue of necessity. And the Giorno di Regno was as virtuous as such things come. In truth, it's not much of a comedy: Verdi composed it at a crisis-ridden time of his life, and the result is more lirico than buffo. When the gags do come, they tend toward the stock-in-trade of Donizetti and Rossini. But one distinctively Verdian factor in the writing is the award of the lead role to a baritone with serious top notes, beyond the reach of an ambitious bass. At the RFH, Vladimir Chernov took them in his stride. And high or low, most of the singing here was good, especially from the female principals, Iano Tamar and Susanne Mentzer. With a conductor, Maurizio Benini, whose fluency in early-19th-century Italian repertoire has been obvious from past showings at Wexford, it all came over with a swift dispatch of numbers and an endearing straightforwardness. The orchestral textures were transparent, the mood was infectious. And however modest an appeal it made to intellectual engagement, it was fun.

As was, in its way, the Verdi Requiem that played on the following night. This time the conductor was Bernard Haitink who, we all know, isn't going to frighten horses with a piece like this. But the sheer control of forces was impressive and the concentrated focus of the professional Royal Opera chorus made an impactful alternative to the sprawling mass of amateurs you usually get fudging the beat in the "Dies Irae".

The chorus writing here is what Verdi would have called "frame" rather than "picture". Like all true lyric opera composers, his interest resides in solo voices, and the soloists in the Requiem are not the intermittent adornment they tend to be in sacred music. They're the whole show in effect, with a lot to sing and a requirement for stamina which, by the end of this performance, was running low.

But it was singing with enough smooth to compensate for the occasional rough. Franco Farina's tenor had resonance if not always elegance. Roberto Scandiuzzi's bass was wonderfully morose in the "Mors stupebit", though it was underpowered elsewhere. And Paula Delligatti's diva-esque soprano was a real couture voice, stylish almost to excess.

When the heroine of Northanger Abbey prepares for the "difficulties and dangers" of a stay in Bath, she speaks with Jane Austen's experience of the city as an 18th-century Las Vegas. These days, Bath just sells gentility: it's a Georgian theme park with a traffic problem. But the town still clings to the idea of itself as an eternal pleasure drome; and to that end it has grand plans to become a Festival City - something presumably like Salzburg - with a year-round succession of cultural events to keep the streets at a standstill.

As Bath has no large-scale concert venue of any quality, this ambitious scheme will come dear in arguments and money. But then Bath knows all about that as, today, it steers into the closing concert of its 50th International Music Festival. It's had a rocky history, and has been dogged by an acrimony that forced out one director after another, from Menuhin (because he wanted opera) to Amelia Freedman (because her programming was "elitist"). But things have settled down under Tim Joss, a director whose broad vision has managed to embrace the popular and the serious with no noticeable damage to either. And although he faced a minor nightmare last weekend when both Emma Kirkby and Prince Charles pulled out of the 50th festival gala concert at short notice, the event survived with a re-jigged programme.

But otherwise, it was a cello weekend, with two big names and contrasting techniques. The first was Anner Bylsma, the Dutch pioneer of period style in cello-playing and of crazily distracted mannerisms in performance. He's what Nigel Kennedy will look like 25 years on. And with his light, low-polish period manner, there's no vibrato to camouflage his intonation, which can be sour. But he's a fluent player, nimble-fingered, with a special sensibility in shaping phrases that may just be connected with the way his cello seems to float between his knees, baroque style, with no spike for anchorage. And although I wouldn't rush to hear him again in the Brahms sonata that ended his recital at the Assembly Rooms, his partnership with the fortepianist Malcolm Bilson was well-balanced and lively.

Raphael Wallfisch - the contrast - made a huge sound in the same Rooms two nights later: big and strong, with a fiercely resinous attack and a fine grasp of the desperate, relentless beauty in Faure's 1917 Cello Sonata. But the main interest in this programme was a new sonata, commissioned by Bath from James MacMillan. Both written for and dedicated to Wallfisch, it gives him big gestures a-plenty and, to start with, something like the rising three-note figure that John Tavener gave Steven Isserlis in The Protecting Veil. That the score is marked "rapt, serene and joyful" reinforces the connection.

But it soon becomes apparent that only two of the three notes really matter, forming an interval of a minor third, which both opens and closes the whole piece. Between them comes a journey out and back, the one answering the other in loosely reverse terms. It's an attractive piece: perhaps too serendipitous (it doesn't move with a perceived necessity), but worth repeated hearing; if only to find out why things happen in the way they do.