Glamour out of odds and ends

MICHAEL WHITE ON CLASSICAL MUSIC
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Opera North, Sadler's Wells, LondonBerlin Philharmonic, Royal Festival Hall, LondonThe Burning Road, Westminter Central Hall, London

Opera North, Sadler's Wells, LondonBerlin Philharmonic, Royal Festival Hall, LondonThe Burning Road, Westminter Central Hall, London

Opera, as we all know, costs money - and how. Last week the opera house in Barcelona reopened, expensively. Soon it will be the turn of Covent Garden to do likewise. So it's probably no coincidence that Opera North has chosen this very moment to launch a radical experiment in thrift.

The experiment has been to take the budget for one new production and two revivals (about £180,000) and stretch it to cover three completely new shows. I need hardly add that new shows normally cost far more than revivals, but they're the life-blood of a company. They build morale, excitement and energy. They carry status. Everyone wants new productions. And Opera North has managed to deliver these three by persuading their respective directors and designers to share a basic set-module, with little in the way of extras.

In the event, Annabel Arden, Tim Albery and David McVicar have come up with three very different visual propositions. But they clearly agree that with token sets, the focus of the staging has to be on physical activity. And somewhat perversely, they've all opted for period dress - although it's a loose, low-key approach to period that, in Annabel Arden's Traviata, has most of the men wearing what look like their own concert-tails, and most of the women in frocks straight out of someone's dressing-up box.

The Traviata is the weakest of the shows in that it tries to make Parisian glamour out of odds and ends, with everything so shabby from the start that there's no possibility of environmental decline in Act III. But by way of compensation, Arden has invested heavily in the emotional currency of the piece. Her Violetta, Janis Kelly, is not a soprano in the first flush of youth, but she's a committed artist. She dies well - hoisted up out of her bed like some transcendent spirit in a print by William Blake. And her relationship with Thomas Randle's Alfredo becomes that of an older woman with a toyboy. Randle is impetuous, unstable, raunchy. It's the so-called fallen woman who has the moral strength. The only pity is that musically things aren't so strong. And though the young conductor Richard Farnes is promising, he doesn't get a good sound from the orchestra.

Tim Albery's Katya Kabanova is an altogether better bet - not least because it eschews token realism and celebrates its bare stage. The curtain rises on nothing but four chairs and a hanging bar of unspecificsymbolic purpose. In the background is a large object covered in a sheet, beside a blackboard on which Katya, at the outset, writes her name. And the potential for all this to turn into a didactic art installation by Joseph Beuys is realised when Katya pulls the sheet after her brief, adulterous encounter in the garden to reveal ... a giant Athena-type reproduction of the fires of hell in Bosch-like action. It's the sort of mega-gesture Albery likes to give you, even on a budget. And it makes its point - though it would make it better if Katya were allowed the duration of an interval to consummate her passion. As things stand, the whole show plays without a break. And while Katya Kabanova is short enough to benefit in tension from that single trajectory, I think it actually needs an interval.

Apart from that, I like what Albery does. His images are strong and memorable. And the value that Hildegard Bechtler, his designer, extracts from those four chairs is resourceful to the point of supererogation. Albery's cast is good and rather better than it looks on paper, with Vivian Tierney's Katya and Alan Oke's unexpectedly potent Boris churning real and heartfelt passion in their stolen moments. Gillian Knight makes a formidably starchy Kabanicha. And although Steven Sloane's conducting is hit and miss (missing, for example, the magic of Kudryash's song at the end of the garden scene) it scores enough of the time to send you home with a sure sense of Katya's place among the world's great operas.

Don Giovanni, the third item in Opera North's package, needs no advocacy of its greatness, which is as well because it gets a lethargic reading here from its conductor Dominic Wheeler. But the staging has a line on thrift that's seriously stylish, using nothing more than smart ideas and a mysterious ladder - whose purpose finally proves to be the access route for an avenging angel to descend from heaven at the end - to conjure up a dark, disturbing world. The narrative is clear and sharp. The singing likewise, led by Garry Magee as a precocious, puppy-cute Don, and with more a mentor than a servant in the sardonic Leporello of Jonathan Best. If this were a costly show, it would be money well spent. As it's comparatively cheap, it's money well saved.

When Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic swept into London last week, it was with much political portent. The orchestra is on a world tour to celebrate "50 Years of German Democracy"; and its concert at the Royal Festival Hall was duly filled with the great and good of British governmental life - rather more of them, I noticed, during the second half (which had Mahler's Third Symphony) than in the first, which had a new piece by contemporary composer Wolfgang Rihm.

The Rihm, however, proved not too hard to deal with. Brilliant, bold and impressive in the confidence with which it handled large-scale forces, it took as its theme a poem written by the Dutchman executed for supposedly burning down the Reichstag in 1933. On Nazi orders, his burial was "at double depth" - "In doppelter Tiefe" - and Rihm has borrowed those words as the title for his piece. It uses two female voices alternating with swathes of highly charged orchestral writing. That he also borrows something of the idiom of Richard Strauss, disintegrated into raucous romance, is, I suppose, a period reference to the questionable escapist beauty of Strauss's wartime output. The poem talks about the survival of beauty in untoward circumstances. Strauss, you might say, fits that bill exactly.

There were more musical politics when Will Todd's oratorio The Burning Road received its London premiere at Westminster Central Hall. This is a piece about the Jarrow March of 1936, and it was performed with one of the original Jarrow banners on the platform. But The Burning Road is more substantial, more effective than a piece of agitprop. It tells a story about courage and determination. And its music is a gift for singing - paying dues to Messiaen, Vaughan Williams, Britten - but alive and energised and packing an emotional punch. Todd is someone who has begun to make a name for himself in community and West End contexts but is still waiting for his moment. It will come. The Burning Road is more than half-way there. And so, I think, are its interpreters: the Crouch End Festival Chorus who, on paper, sound like a joke by Alan Coren. But with crisp, clear diction and a decent tenor section, they're no laughing matter. Take them seriously, and often.

Opera North: Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0191 232 2061) Tues-Sat; then touring to Manchester and Nottingham

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