New French Song, Purcell Room, London<br></br>Tosca/Royal Opera, Royal Opera House, London

England win something at last!

It's rare to go to a recital and hear 20 songs you haven't heard before. It's even more unusual when they are all by living composers. New French Song, devised and commissioned by soprano Alison Smart and pianist Katharine Durran, was certainly ambitious in bringing together 20 new works by contemporary British composers, each of them setting a French text.

Smart and Durran spread their net widely, commissioning senior figures like Hugh Wood (born in 1932) and Edward Cowie (1943), then moving down the generations to Will Todd (1970) and Tarik O'Regan (1978). Mallarmé proved the most popular choice, with three attempts. One text - Apollinaire's Le Pont Mirabeau - was set twice, in quite different ways, by Todd and Howard Skempton. Glaswegian Edward McGuire set his own words, in French. Laurence Crane chose a list of statistics from the Tour de France, whose most appealing feature was the opportunity to hear the name Eddy Merckx set to music - presumably for the first time.

The performers committed themselves to a broad range of styles, too - the modernist complexities of Michael Finnissy and Roger Redgate sat side-by-side with Graham Fitkin's minimalism and Howard Skempton's three-chord-trick ultra-simplicity in his Apollinaire piece, which was like a fragment of a lugubrious Piaf cabaret number endlessly repeated. Fitkin's setting of a few lines of Erik Satie's food diary, as quirky as the man himself ("I eat only white food: eggs, sugar, grated bone marrow, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts," it begins), had an engagingly manic quality: it would make a good encore piece. Judith Bingham's waywardly Gothic La Jeune Morte was certainly striking.

There were a few outright failures, the most common fault being the usual tendency to spin things out beyond the interest of the material itself.In a couple of the pieces the vocal writing was awkward, and though Smart's delicate voice is well suited to French song (at least the more classical variety) she was, not surprisingly, taxed by such a lengthy and demanding programme. But both she and pianist Durran are excellent musicians with a strong mutual rapport. They brought the thing off all right.

Since these occasions always have something of the sense of a competition about them, let's get the scorecards out and pick a few winners. In third place I'd put John Casken's Colloque Sentimental, with its echoes of Debussy, for its overall technical finish. Second prize goes to Edward Cowie for his onomatopoeic owl song Les Hiboux, which was organically alive and witty without ostentatiously trying to be funny.

In first place I'd put Will Todd, for Le Pont Mirabeau, with its flowing river Seine accompaniment underpinning a memory of lost love in the vocal line. The piano and voice were imaginatively integrated, and there was a powerful sense of atmosphere. So it is gratifying to record a British song in first, second and third place on this occasion, even if that was kind of inevitable in the circumstances.

At Covent Garden a fond farewell is in order to the longest-running production in the Royal Opera's repertoire. This Tosca was new in 1964, when Zeffirelli directed it and Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi took the meatiest roles. There were two casts for this revival, of which I caught the first. Unfortunately it wasn't a very distinguished one. There was a new Cavaradossi, the Chinese tenor Yu Qiang Dai, making his debut in the role. He's an eager if clearly inexperienced actor, with a tendency to get ahead of the conductor's beat (Christian Badea had to keep a close eye on him all night). The voice has an appealingly lyrical quality, with a brilliant top register, but not always quite enough substance lower down.

Maria Guleghina has sung Tosca at Covent Garden before, and with considerably more distinction than she managed here. The tone has got a bit blowsy, and came and went in the last act. With her constant flouncing, petulance and handbag swinging, she made Puccini's diva into a total pain in the arse.

Samuel Ramey is another old hand with Scarpia. Now 60, his voice has hollowed out somewhat, and though he retains a certain menace of the Bela Lugosi variety, the suave side of this aristocratic sadist escapes him. As Toscas go, this was less shocking than, in places, a bit shabby.

And this Tosca is definitely going - to Chicago Lyric Opera, in fact, which presumably means they're 40 years behind Covent Garden. Or is it? Because - and here's the clever bit - there's apparently a clause in the contract of sale that means that the Royal Opera can have this production back if they don't like its replacement. Now that's what I call forward planning.

Comments