Ion/ Music Theatre Wales, Linbury Studio, London<br></br>Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Roll up, it's Euripides: the makeover show
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"Intimate opera with a big kick" runs Music Theatre Wales's catch-phrase; a snappy little strap-line that, to me, rather implies one of those tiny companies that specialise in shoe-string performances of abridged pot-boilers at fancy hotels and stately homes. Will it pack 'em in for MTW's touring production of Param Vir's Ion? Will the denizens of Mold leap at the chance to see Euripdes with arias? I hope so. But "big kicks" are few and far between in Ion. Unfashionable it may be, but seriousness is MTW's best suit.

So forget your cut-price Carmens. Instead of dimestore divas in third-hand mantillas we have a clear, concentrated production from director Michael McCarthy and designer Simon Banham, a strong cast, an interesting theme and some occasionally beautiful, sometimes striking music where the influence of Jonathan Harvey is evident, if not always well realised by MTW's uneven 18-piece orchestra. David Lan's adaptation of the story of Creusa and Ion - a mother and son separated and reunited - is certainly one of the most literary libretti I've heard in a while; notable as much for the breadth of its vocabulary as for the one bad pun that had the Classicists at last week's performance hissing through their teeth. The characters of Creusa (the magnificent Rita Cullis) and poor, chippy Ion (a puckish Michael Bennett) are well drawn; the writing for the quintet of servants (Giselle Minns, Tara Harrison, Alison Kettlewell, Trine Bastrup Moller ad Emily Bauer-Jones) is distinctive, the cameo appearances of Pythia (Nuala Willis) and Athene (Louise Walsh) smart and to the point. But what both writers have failed to do is to establish the level at which this opera is working and the lurch between natural and formal, accessible and intellectual, and soap-opera and opera is far from happy.

In hammering home the timelessness of our hero's dilemma, Lan has given Euripides the sort of contemporary makeover that the BBC gave to Chaucer. If the upside is "relevancy", the downside is values that don't translate to the 21st century. Furthermore the seams in this work's progression from its first incarnation to the current completion are evident. The spacious, searching quality of the open fifth that underpins Vir's score sounds sometimes thin, sometimes terribly over-worked. Harvey-esque quintets aside, the best moments are those that marry emotional intensity and musical simplicity; the reconciliation scene between Creusa and Ion - a duet coloured by the mournful echo of a cor anglais - and the cello solo that reveals the vulnerability behind Ion's (over-played) obsession with status or class. Has Vir found his own sound yet? As it stands, Ion is interesting but my suspicion is that this is a composer whose next opera will be the one to see.

If there's one destination where MTW can count on an audience, it's Birmingham; a city where the interest in new music is palpable. So palpable, in fact, that Birmingham Contemporary Music Group's "Sound Investments" scheme has now raised over £100,000 for new commissions from local music lovers; an achievement that seems quite incredible unless you've heard this group in action. Surviving the first performance of a work where the notation resembles a Rorsach test is one thing, but BCMG translate those shapes and make them expressive. They don't just inform, they enthuse. And their sound is utterly ravishing every time.

Which is why on a rainy evening in late October they can fill the CBSO centre for a concert of obscure works by Galina Ustvolskaya, Thea Musgrave, Howard Skempton and their guest conductor James MacMillan, and why the perfectly ordinary middle-aged couple sitting next to me cheerfully recounted their fondness for Musgrave's Lamenting with Ariadne and their excitement at hearing Ustvolskaya; pupil and lover of Shostakovich, and the main draw for that night's performance. Ustvolskaya's Symphony No 5 (1990) - a taut, disturbing work where The Lord's Prayer is declaimed in Russian against slices of light from trumpet, oboe and violin and the crude percussive knock of the "cube" (a small, wooden coffin) - thankfully lived up to the hype, as did her earlier Octet; an angry, brutal piece that owed much to her late teacher's style. The Musgrave, though deliciously played, I can take or leave. Likewise MacMillan's over-wrought The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul, which, in common with a lot of his music, seems curiously insubstantial given his intense political and spiritual engagement with the subject. All in all, the piece that stayed with me was Skempton's austere, sheer, immensely satisfying Chamber Concerto; a concise and beautiful work that conjures the tension and invention of 1920s Paris. Was ten minutes of real pleasure, 30 or so of mild interest, and as many again of intellectual fascination enough justification for the two-hour journey? You bet it was. But it always is.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Ion': Music Theatre Wales, The Anvil, Basingstoke (01256 844244), 4 Nov then touring

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