Australian Chamber Orchestra/ Upshaw, Dome, Brighton<br></br> Mazepa, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff

Don't mess with Mahler
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The Independent Culture

The Brighton Dome has acoustics as dry as those of Bath Abbey are wet, showing every vulgarity in the performance. ACO's upper strings produced a coarse sound, obliterating some sensitive work from the violas. Upshaw, charm and candour intact, but short of breath and frantically applying umlauts to every vowel, regardless of whether the text was German, Hungarian or 14th-century English, sounded as though she had höt-tailed it straight from Gätwick.

Dominated to a hubristic degree by lead violinist Richard Tognetti's schmaltzy arrangements, ACO's programme contrived to make Bartók, Britten and Schubert as monochromatic as Arvo Pärt, whose Aeolian fade-out Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten was one of very few works not to be re-scored. I'm all for enterprise, but Mahler arranged Death and the Maiden for string orchestra and made a much better job of it than Tognetti. Two unrelated arias from Bach's Ich bin vergnügt and Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut and Takemitsu's dreary Death and Resurrection also escaped revision, though they were played in much the same self-conciously moody fashion. Once upon a time, ACO's musicianship was as distinctive as its presentation. Without that expressivity, they're the orchestral equivalent of Riverdance, with Tognetti as their Michael Flatley. Anyway, the audience loved it.

Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser rarely leave their aesthetic comfort-zone, but if I get bored of the Vespa-and-Smeg school of opera productions, it stands to reason that they do too. Given this was Welsh National Opera, we should be grateful their modern-dress Mazepa wasn't performed in space suits. Still, why flirt with an analogue for the current Cossack revival if you're not going to see it through? The former Soviet Union may be in a parlous state, but it has yet to show televised executions.

Whatever my misgivings about Caurier and Leiser's Kieslowski-lite production - all polyester prints and masking tape - this glorious score is magnificently played under Alexander Polianichko. Gidon Saks (Kochubei), Robert Hayward (Mazepa), Tatiana Monogarova (Mariya), Mariyana Tarasova (Lyubov) and the chorus sing with passion and integrity. It's the must-see show of WNO's summer tour.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Mazepa' is touring to 15 July

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