Ariodante, English National Opera, London<br/>Thais, Grange Park, Winchester<br/>Ascanio in Alba,Barbican, London

Heroic splendour
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The Independent Culture

Where were you on 9/11? I was at the Coliseum, feeling guilty at deserting the deathly drama unfolding on television in favour of mere opera. The programme may have been weirdly appropriate - Gluck's voyage into the underworld - but what made the evening cathartic was the performer in the title role: a new young mezzo named Alice Coote, whose Orpheus both chilled the marrow and lifted the heart. Since then she's had her ups and downs, but has never realised that initial promise - until now. Incarnating Handel's Ariodante, as part of ENO's strongest vocal line-up for years, she commands the huge auditorium through the sheer charisma of her art. Her looks aren't tremendously heroic, but heroism is what she radiates: with a timbre of remarkable evenness, and coloratura which is effortlessly sure, she deploys her voice with such persuasive musicality that we're turned into willing believers the moment she begins to sing. And she really can act - which saves the day in David Alden's visually stylish but theatrically perverse production, which has her rolling on the floor with everyone else, and delivering her key aria while sliding dangerously down a roof.

When it premiered 13 years ago, this show was the dernier cri in opera-chic: the merriment which rippled round the stalls last week suggested that fewer people are taken in by its much-trumpeted revival. Alden has no faith in the emotional truths of Handel's drama of love, jealousy, and death: everything must be subverted, post-modernised, injected with "attitude". He meddles with the masques, and messes with the da capo arias, imposing sexual fantasies which play fast and loose with Handel. Whence the shepherdess whose protracted gang-rape is crudely superimposed on Act One? (OK, you can work it out, but it lacks the seeming inevitability of a successful theatrical device.)

Act Two may end with the King unjustly condemning his daughter as a whore, but the "masque" which Alden devises for it is old-fashioned theatre-of-cruelty stuff - a girl blindfolded and stripped naked by camp orgiasts, and plunged into a glass tank of water. Alden thinks heroism is a hoot, so the opera's climactic duel becomes the Munsters lurching about; on the other hand, the sadism with which the maligned heroine is trussed like a fowl preparatory to execution displays loving attention to detail (it's a tribute to Rebecca Evans's professionalism that she sings exquisitely throughout this indignity). Does Alden not like women?

Can it really be true, as Grange Park's press release claims, that Massenet's Thais - with its ubiquitous violin solo - has never been staged in Britain? If so, full marks to this charming mini-Glyndebourne for doing it, and so cleverly. Director-designer David Fielding has transformed the fleshpots of Alexandria into the Costa del Crime, which works a treat with courtesan Thais (the luscious Anne-Sophie Duprels) as a strip-club diva. Pious monk Athanael (baritone Ashley Holland, clumsy passion personified) tries to save Thais's soul, while she tries to seduce him; he falls for her, but she falls for Christ, so the two ships pass in the night. Fielding illustrates Massenet's erotic-ascetic opposition by the Cross sleazily sexualised in the chest-hair of Thais's slobby record-producer boyfriend Nicias (excellent Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts), and by a cruciform entrance to the club. Fielding takes as many liberties with his text as Alden did with his, but these cohere and illuminate: the violin meditation becomes the accompaniment to a mimed play-within-a-play with Christ entering in his crown of thorns. It may not have the emotional power of Ariodante - we are, after all, in fin-de-siecle Paris, where love is merely in the loins - but this gracefully-sung production carries total conviction.

It was bad luck on the Barbican that illness prevented Sandrine Piau from starring in Fabio Biondi's concert version of Ascanio in Alba by Mozart, but the evening threw up another star: Sunhae Im, a Korean soprano with a gorgeously silvery sound. As notable were two young singers I caught next night with the London Philharmonic Choir in Cripplegate Church: soprano Sarah Deane-Cutler and tenor Geir Andreassen, amateurs who have risen through the ranks, but surely destined to go far.

Meanwhile at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, over-hyped young Nicola Benedetti essayed Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. To be brutally frank, she's not up to this supremely demanding work, and someone should have put a brake on her ambition. Or was it her agent's ambition? She's a plucky gel, jumping through the showbiz hoops, and doing her bit for charity in Africa, but ars longa, and this kind of art is longest of all.

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