Restoration as it should be done

Michael White On Classical
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Alceste, Barbican, LondonOrchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Royal Festival Hall, LondonBoulez: Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Festival Hall, LondonKing Priam, Coliseum, LondonPelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne, Sussex

Alceste, Barbican, LondonOrchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Royal Festival Hall, LondonBoulez: Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Festival Hall, LondonKing Priam, Coliseum, LondonPelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne, Sussex

A serious opera "without castratos, arias without vocal exercises, and a libretto without triviality or pomposity". No wonder Joseph von Sonnenfels described himself as being "in the land of miracles" after seeing Gluck's Alceste in 1767. And though Alceste might not seem so miraculous two centuries and an awful lot of dull productions later, it revisited its former glory this week when John Eliot Gardiner brought it - packaged with his usual sense of style and drama - to the Barbican.

"Packaged" is the word, because these performances - given in concert - were the tail end of a typically Gardineresque touring project with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. It began as a full staging at the Chatelet in Paris, pulled in the BBC, and will result in a Philips recording. But if it guarantees performances as well-prepared, well-groomed, well-cast as this, so be it.

With a vigorously tight ensemble, elegantly cushioned pizzicato accompaniments, and muscular power in the temple scenes (where Gluck gives Mozart a few ideas about creating a sense of supernatural awe with trombones), it was the essence of that old cliché about period performance being like picture restoration: cleaning off the darkened varnish to reveal a fresh-as-it-was-painted canvas underneath. Of course, Alceste is a dark piece. It's a classic myth of love and sacrifice which Gluck presents in solemn, rather static terms - until the lieto fine when Hercules arrives and sorts everyone out in five minutes flat. But for me, this reading was a revelation. Until Tuesday night I had never really shared that Josef Sonnenfels experience. I understood the historical significance of Alceste as the score in which Gluck set out his agenda for the reform of operatic malpractice. I knew that to 18th-century ears its "noble simplicity", unembellished vocal writing and clear gender definition must have come as a shock after decades of histrionic campery on the opera stage. But did I feel its stature in my heart? Not really. It was just a sort of afterbirth to Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck's more famous, earlier opera, which had better tunes. Or so they seemed.

On Tuesday night I changed my mind, convinced by the lyric urgency of Paul Groves's Admete, the strength of Dietrich Henschel's High Priest, the warmth of Ludovic Tezier's Apollo, and above all, the restrained anxiety of Anne Sofie von Otter's Alceste (lightweight in her big Act I defiance aria but otherwise a reading of depth and dignity). That some of the smaller roles were vocally vulnerable was a pity. But the package held good. Watch out for those discs.

A touch more packaging - or at least, grooming - wouldn't have gone amiss in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment concert at the RFH on Wednesday. It was the second instalment in a cycle of Beethoven symphonies that uses different conductors and, in doing so, advertises the OAE's policy of bending its collective knee to no one in particular. The closest it gets to contracted conductors are "principal guests" Simon Rattle and Frans Bruggen. And it was Bruggen who directed Symphonies Nos 3 and 8, with authority and insight but a surprising lack of concern for basic problems that were commonplace in period bands 10 years ago but are supposed, now, to be history. Like intonation and balance. With breathless speeds in No 8, and explosive differentiation of dynamics, these were readings I found uncomfortable and, frankly, rather shabby. I respect the OAE: they're normally a fine ensemble. But we all have off-nights. This was one.

Another band that bows to no conductor, the Vienna Philharmonic, wasn't having too good a time either when it came to London last weekend for a date with Boulez. The programme - Webern, Schoenberg, Bartók - was conspicuously Boulezian, although on the softer side of his repertoire in that the Webern (Passacaglia) and Schoenberg (Verklärte Nacht) were early, pre-serial scores, and the Bartók was the Concerto for Orchestra. Nothing there to frighten the horses. And by general standards, what we heard was very decent. By the standards of the VPO, though, it was underpowered. The sound was good - especially the brass, which Boulez seemed to nurture more than the traditional velvet of the Viennese strings. But the Verklärte Nacht - which is for strings alone - felt oddly insecure. And the Concerto had no punch, no lift-off.

Happily, two operas running at the moment punch and lift superbly, and in the revival of Tippett's King Priam at ENO you'll find all the punch an average opera-goer can take at one sitting. It's the staging that began at Opera North in 1991 with direction and designs by Tom Cairns. And I've rarely seen a production of such integrity - in the literal sense of that word. Concept, sets and movement all fit seamlessly together. More important still, their curious mix of scratch brutality and lyric beauty fit the piece. They work as Tippett's music works, with a poetic starkness - unadorned but with each element placed absolutely where it needs to be. I love this show. I love the flesh-and-blood reality of Andrew Shore as Priam. It's good to see Mark Le Brocq - a light lyric tenor nursed from nothing by ENO - growing into the heavier, romantic demands of Paris. And it's a pleasure to see the strength of singers like Riccardo Simonetti and Mark Richardson in the smaller roles. This show is one of the best across-the-board company achievements ENO has offered in a long while. And with Elgar Howarth in the pit, it's musically satisfying. If you haven't seen it, cancel all engagements. If you have, its even better second time around.

The other opera to be seen again is Glyndebourne's Pelléas et Mélisande, re-cast and scaled down for touring. The sweeping circular staircase we all marvelled at during the festival is gone, and without it, the set lacks focus - a bit like a furniture emporium. But the underlit transparent floor survives along with the essence of Graham Vick's production, which contains Maeterlink's vague fable of knights, castles and improbably long hair within the semi-stifled fantasies of a bourgeois family circa 1900. That the cast has changed is no bad thing. During the festival it was dominated by John Tomlinson whose Golaud was impressive but outsized. This time, with Robert Poulton in the role, there's more balance. And with Mary-Louise Aitken nicely treading the line between ambiguity and credibility as Mélisande, and Gérard Théruel a bright, engaging Pelléas, it makes in many ways a more attractive line-up. Louis Langrée conducts with a feel for colour and style that rarely fails to touch the G-spots of Debussy's score. And altogether it's a joy - if that's the right response to such a masterpiece of quiet neurosis.

'King Priam': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300) to Fri; 'Pelléas' tours to 10 Dec (details 01273 812321)

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