Orfeo ed Euridice/Opera North, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh <br/> Prom 68, Royal Albert Hall, London

It's all singin', all dancin' in the Underworld
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'For Martini, the artist putting himself on the side of pigs, taking on their perspective of the world, lying down in their mud and excrement is carrying out a simple but intense ritual of purification." From Orfeo ed Euridice: visions of Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten.

'For Martini, the artist putting himself on the side of pigs, taking on their perspective of the world, lying down in their mud and excrement is carrying out a simple but intense ritual of purification." From Orfeo ed Euridice: visions of Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten.

At one and a half hours duration, Greco and Scholten's Edinburgh Festival co-production of Orfeo ed Euridice with Opera North in no way approaches the eye-plucking interminability of some productions I've seen. I didn't lose my will to live. I didn't think "Ooh, I'd rather see Luisa Miller." Can I be more positive? No. On paper, this collaboration between England's pluckiest opera company and two celebrated mavens of contemporary dance must have seemed irresistible. On stage, it is not.

Despite lighting (Henk Danner) and projection effects (Joost Rekveld) of sculptural grace, string playing of almost abrasive lucidity, and singing of utter sweetness from Canadian counter-tenor Daniel Taylor (Orfeo), Gluck's musical language of love and loss is entirely obscured by physical rhetoric. Greco and Scholten's choreography is a bewitching collision of convulsive tics and hieratic poses familiar from the work of Mark Morris and Robert Wilson. Sadly, they are less sympathetic to the needs of singers than either of these. Taking photographer Pasquale Martini's desolate images of dead piglets as their inspiration - why? - they attempt to establish a tabula rasa to reflect the numb impotence of our bereaved hero. Orfeo's journey is therefore psychological. But Taylor - sporting an unflattering sci-fi hairpiece above his beatnik black turtleneck and slacks - is rarely given an opportunity to project his emotions or his voice past the guddle of dancers that surround him like paparazzi in pursuit of a Premiership footballer.

Balletomanes may disagree but I feel that Greco and Scholten have missed the point here. That Orfeo is a singer and that opera must be sung has been lost to their prima la danza pretensions. Greco, who doubles (silently) as Amor and Pluto, briefly adopts the Orphic persona himself; only dipping his toe in the music - or the orchestra pit - in the final second of the show, without apparent irony. He cuts a stunning figure in his oatmeal shroud: the mournful love-child of Michael Clark and Billy Bob Thornton. But it's hard to imagine a more comprehensive sabotage of an opera than this.

As Greco's all-singin', all-dancin' other half, Claire Ormshaw (Amor) adopts the aerobic argot with more ease than Taylor or his lisping Iberian Euridice (Isabel Monar); mirroring the jerks and quirks of the dancers with commendable fluency, while turning in a stylish account of her music. But Ormshaw's simple costume allows this freedom. The chorus, by contrast, are wrapped in funnel-necked floor-length duvets, and their indignation at being thus sound-proofed through several of the most sublime passages in operatic history is palpable.

But the chief characteristic of this production is its emphatic indifference to the integrity of Gluck's score and the consequent snub to conductor Nicholas Kok's deft sketch of its narrative arc. Edited to the point of emaciation, ridden with anti-musical caesurae and, curiously, minus as many dances as arias, this Orfeo begins and ends not with music but with the pitchless percussion of palsied feet and hands against floor and body: a shuffling, sniffing, slapping and shuddering rebuff to its composer's theory on the dramatic function of overtures. Arte povera, indeed. Not since Piero Manzoni canned his own faeces has high art smelled so bad.

Which brings me neatly to the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle: an artist for whom the tabula rasa is likewise pre-eminent. Rattle's signature style - whether in Bruckner, Beethoven, Mahler or Szymanowski - has lately become the process of stripping things back; a "clarity is all" dynamic, after the model of interior designers who knock down false ceilings to reach the essence of a building. In Das Rheingold (Prom 45), this worked well. And why shouldn't it? The emotional architecture of Wagner's score is sturdy enough to withstand the loss of several layers of plaster. But what is left if you strip back Debussy or Messaien? Something terribly fragile. Something that needs the smoke of spirituality and the sweat of ecstasy to sustain it. Something that requires a good deal more poetic depth than Rattle is currently able to offer.

After a distinctly dry account of La mer - one that left me regretting the vogue for competitive pianissimi - Rattle's choice for the second half of Prom 68 was Messaien's Éclairs sur L'Au-delà: an 11-part map of heaven that was here closer to a photo-essay on a John Pawson interior. I was startled to see him move Apparition du Christ glorieux chord by chord without supplying a basic tactus for the harmonies to hug and release; the consequence of which was as organic an expression of awe as a computer-generated haiku. That Plusiers oiseux des arbres de Vie was the most successful movement was hardly surprising: the practicalities of co-ordinating 17 disparate wind soloists prevented Rattle from doing anything but beating clearly and counting figures, thus allowing Berlin's virtuosi the freedom to fly.

Not Messaien's greatest work. Not Rattle's either, though his live recording for EMI is more persuasive. For a report on Sir Charles Mackerras's transcendent Dvorak with the Czech Philharmonic (Prom 70) - the antithesis of the above - please see next week's pages.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Orfeo ed Euridice': Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0870 905 5060), 16 October, then touring

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