The garden of earthly delights

Despite doubts over its financial future, the 10th BOC Covent Garden Festival offers an exciting, eclectic programme
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Kenneth Richardson is on the hunt for a major sponsor. For the past four seasons he has planned one of the most lively, entertaining, and wide-ranging of all London's festivals, located at the heart of the capital. Spreading out on to the Covent Garden piazza, burrowing into the Royal Opera House, reaching out to Holborn and Kingsway's Cochrane and Peacock theatres, reaching tentacles into Lincoln's Inn and the Temple and, cheekily this year, staging performances of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury in the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand.

Scottish-born Richardson is the director of the BOC Covent Garden Festival, the acclaimed springboard of many of London's most spirited spring events. But the handsome subsidy that BOC, the gas and transportation giant, has given as chief sponsor seems poised to disappear with its new merger. Next year the piazza may be an artistically much duller place. There is hope. American Express is already a backer, and fruitful links with Carlton and the BBC help it reach a wide public. Ecco Domani, the giant Californian winemaker, makes a large input in kind, which helps balance the books.

For most of its 10-year life the festival has focused on the singing voice. "One of our ideas is to open up venues and take audiences into new places. Hence the production in the Royal Courts of Justice - I had no idea what a stunning building it was inside. We're using the Hippodrome in Leicester Square for The Birth of the Blues, which stars Kim Criswell and Wayne Marshall reviving Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington.

"George Dvorsky is returning this year doing evenings of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. We're staging his solo show, In The Still of the Night. In the Kurt Weill centenary year, Marie McLaughlin pairs The Seven Deadly Sins with a very funny new piece called Send for Mr Plim. It's set in a store where customers are forever complaining, and the manager hits on the idea of inventing this character Plim, whom he summons and formally sacks every time there's a rumpus."

The major commission is Early Opera Company's new production of Alfred, by Thomas Arne. Why Alfred? "Well, it's great music, very much in the Handelian manner. And he was the local lad - born, lived and did most of his work here. He wrote a huge number of operas, many of which perished in various theatre fires. But Alfred is an ideal piece, it's about nationhood, and the founding of the English state."

But arguably Richardson's piÿce de résistance comes tomorrow on the opening day - "Creation Day", set in the massive courtyard of Somerset House: "During the day, 600-plus schoolchildren will perform their own work based on three stages of the Creation - the natural world, animals and humankind, with Haydn's music fitted around it. Then in the evening the Haydn Chamber Orchestra and Crouch End Festival Chorus will perform the whole work, but instead of the secco recitatives we've invited various groups - a gospel choir, an Indian dance group - to take the story forward in their own way. It's all open air, so we're praying for good weather," says Richardson, showing his first twinge of pre-opening nerves. Perhaps the Creator will be kind.

For full details call 020-7413 1410