Britten Sinfonia/Daniel, Hexagon Theatre, Reading<br></br> Lulu/ENO, Coliseum, London

When Lulu came back and Britten stood alone

Last week, in the surprisingly sweet acoustics of Reading's bunker-like Hexagon Theatre, Nicholas Daniel and the Norwich-based Britten Sinfonia gave their penultimate touring performance of "An English Serenade", a programme of music written during the Second World War. Like Douglas Boyd, Daniel has embarked on a second career while still at the top of his game as a soloist; exchanging his oboe for a baton. In this programme, however, he took both roles: playing Vaughan Williams's 1944 Concerto for Oboe and Strings with eloquent intensity, and directing the remaining pieces with obvious love for the pastoral style.

It's a love I've often wished I could share. But once you've heard the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis or the Mass in G minor a few times, Vaughan Williams's soft and oft-repeated skeins of notes become as regular and unremarkable as a row of Tudorbethan semis or, pace Elisabeth Lutyens, cow-pats in a pasture. Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus follows this model, and Daniel's precise, focused performance failed to win me over. Technically and expressively the 24 strings of the Sinfonia, led by Benjamin Nabarro, are extremely well-matched, and their account of Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra, also written in 1939, was bright and alert and spontaneous. The pizzicato in the second section of the Rondo Pastorale - what else? - of the Concerto for Oboe and Strings was beautifully defined, while Daniel's dynamic phrasing made a strong case for playing without the intervention of a third party. But where, in a programme devoted to works written 1939-1944, was the war?

Ambivalent, brooding, ecstatic and violent, only Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) hinted at the carnage overshadowing Vaughan Williams's pastoral idylls. Tenor John Mark Ainsley, accompanied by Stephen Bell on natural and valved horns, gave a magnetic performance; adopting a subtly different persona for each song, and moving his smooth, virile tone with cruel beauty and a grand sense of line. Perfect of diction and artfully shaped, this was an impressive interpretation of a Janus-like work.

So back to the Coliseum for the first revival of Richard Jones's 2002 production of Lulu; still as arresting in design (Paul Steinberg) but, after more recent triumphs such as Wozzeck and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, now curiously apathetic in its execution. Though Lisa Saffer (Lulu) and Susan Parry (Countess Geschwitz) were suffering from throat infections, neither singer flagged in what must be among the most emotionally disturbing roles written for women. Saffer, through her multiple costume and identity changes, was fearless, while Parry was unstintingly generous in her impersonation of the humiliated Countess. But with the notable exceptions of Gwynne Howell (Schigolch), Robert Poulton (Animal Tamer/Acrobat) and Toby Stafford-Allen (Journalist), the rest of the cast were low in energy and their diction was half-hearted.

Without precise delivery Jones's satire falls flat. One-on-one - in Lulu's exchanges with Schigolch and with Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper (Robert Hayward) - the production is as powerful as it was three years ago. In the flurry of Act II's jail-break and Act III's party, however, it was a mess. Worse still, the spoken dialogue, which seemed very much longer than before, was delivered after the style of a charity skit by the BBC's Grandstand team, with THE oddest OF emphases. In the pit, conductor Paul Daniel sounded happier than he has in a long time and this was a strong performance from the ENO orchestra. I'd be lying if I didn't say that Lulu, on current form, is enervating. (When Jack expresses his relief after killing her, he speaks for all of us.) Nonetheless, for Saffer's performance alone, it is still very much worth seeing.

'Lulu': Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7632 8300), to 13 May

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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