Alistair Campbell, eat your heart out. When it comes to sexing-up the unsexy, English National Opera is the true master of spin. Undaunted by a year of bad press and industrial action, the opening of its 2003/4 season saw this plucky company come out kicking. First we had the traditional pointless debate on the Today programme. (Question: why is ENO abandoning its policy of staging operas in English? Answer: it's not! And you can hear it not abandoning it this week!) Then, last Saturday, the opening production of its Barbican residency; a sexy young cast in a sexy old opera - Così fan tutte - updated to a sexy contemporary setting and directed by a sexy young actor, Samuel West. Phwoarr!
Phwoarr? Not unless Così staged as an upmarket Sandals holiday floats your pedalo. Not unless you're prepared to swallow a small amount of tinkering with plot and score. Not unless you think that a work dependent on 18th-century values - or, at the very least, values that pre-date the Pill - can be updated to the present day without some loss of internal logic. Not unless you believe that sexiness and youth - as opposed to unusual and demanding repertoire realised with rigorous attention to drama - are the defining qualities of ENO. And not unless you think that staging an opera so thick with subtleties, bitterness, irony and formal convention is a suitable job for a debuting opera director.
Speaking personally, it doesn't and I don't. (Though conductor Mark Wigglesworth's negative verdict on the off-stage chorus is one I share.) This lightest and most dark of Mozart's operas is not a job for a beginner. There's plenty of promise in the sexy young cast: Toby Stafford-Allen's Guglielmo is a strong and angry presence, artfully contrasted with the puppyish vulnerability of Colin Lee's Ferrando. But character development seems to have stopped with the boys. Victoria Simmonds's underdirected Dorabella relies on the gorgeous natural timbre of her voice - easy at the top, clear at the bottom, sweetly husky throughout the histrionics of Smanie implacabili - while Mary Plazas, a gifted and sensitive actress, plays Knock Down Ginger with Fiordiligi's sustained high notes. Company stalwart Andrew Shore delivers a blustery, generalised Don Alfonso, quite out-performed by Alison Roddy's superb seen-it-all-before Despina; pinched of mouth and bottom and jolly tired of both.
Details like these are interesting enough, but ENO's Barbican Così is significantly less polished or persuasive than Matthew Warchus's between-the-wars Coliseum production and in dire need of further interrogation. West's most definite gesture - Fiordiligi's unmasking of Ferrando in their Act II duet and subsequent, apparently genuine, passion for him in the full knowledge that he is her sister's fiancé - intensifies that scene exquisitely. Unfortunately, it also completely undermines the opera's finale. Still, Alison Chitty's sets are a delight and the acoustics of the Barbican Theatre are, in some ways, an improvement. For once, each syllable of the libretto is audible, making the best sections of Jeremy Sams's translation a Steve Martin-style frenzy of waspish wit, though the orchestral effect is closer to a swarm of musical bees. It's significant that when Les Arts Florissants gave its semi-staged version of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria here, the orchestra was placed on stage. How much flexibility there is in David McVicar's Lucretia - the next fully staged ENO production at the Barbican Theatre - remains to be seen, but some solution to this problem will have to be found.
One Mozartian own goal aside, the sheer bullishness of ENO's away game tactics proved thrilling in the first of its two concert performances of Massenet's Thaïs (sung in French, naturellement) under the marvellous Emmanuel Joël. Now, 19th-century French exotica has not been ENO's strongest suit of late - remember The Trojans? - so taking on Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra in repertoire that they have made their own - Les Troyens, Samson et Dalila, La damnation de Faust etc - in a hall that is very much their own, might seem daring to the point of recklessness. But gosh, ENO pulled it off! So its orchestral sound bears little comparison to the hi-gloss finish of the LSO (some re-auditioning is long overdue in the upper strings). Who cares when the casting is this thorough, which was adamantly not the case in Davis's Faust, and when these absurd, ravishing, velveteen and sequinned choruses are properly sung? No disrespect intended to the London Symphony Chorus, but ENO's chorus produces an infinitely more focused, rich, expert and appropriate sound. And no disrespect to Marina Domashenko's Dalila - or indeed to the bright young things of Così - but sexy? Not compared to Elizabeth Futral (Thaïs), you're not.
Though Futral, Richard Zeller (Athanaël), and Paul Charles Clarke (Nicias) share the habit of masticating French vowels like so many Belgian chocolates, this was a top-notch cast; spirited, confident, seductive, committed and beautifully convincing. Also excellent were Sarah-Jane Davies (Crobyle), Rebecca de Pont Davies's dignified Mère Albine, and the uncredited First Monk. Granted lines such as "the sparkling air where I breathed the foul perfume of lust" are probably better left untranslated, thereby rendering Thaïs unstageable according to ENO's remit, but it seems incredible that this gloriously profane treatment of a sacred subject has not been seen in a full production since 1926. Which might suggest that last week was the first ever opportunity to hear Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov - at the Royal Opera House in Andrei Tarkovsky's Eisenstein-indebted 1983 production and conducted with chilling precision and power by Semyon Bychkov - and Thaïs on consecutive evenings. I'll return to Boris next week but if you haven't already booked a ticket, start queuing now.
'Così fan tutte': Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891) to 11 October; 'Boris Godunov': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 9 OctoberReuse content