A Child of Our Time/ENO, Coliseum, London
The Knot Garden/Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

War? A bad thing? You're extracting the Michael...

Eight days after announcing its 2005/6 season with the pigeon-toed tag-line "English? National? Opera?", ENO celebrated Tippett's centenary with a work that ticks only one of these boxes. Far be it from me to take issue with the company's rejection of, say, The Ice Break. Staging A Child of Our Time shows sound commercial judgement. Anyway, oratorios have become part of the operatic canon at ENO. For the chorus they offer a chance to shine. For directors, an opportunity to demonstrate what can be achieved on a low budget. For soloists, most of whom will have cut their teeth in church and cathedral choirs, they unite two sides of a musical personality. Which is all very Jungian and therefore appropriate to Tippett.

Eight days after announcing its 2005/6 season with the pigeon-toed tag-line "English? National? Opera?", ENO celebrated Tippett's centenary with a work that ticks only one of these boxes. Far be it from me to take issue with the company's rejection of, say, The Ice Break. Staging A Child of Our Time shows sound commercial judgement. Anyway, oratorios have become part of the operatic canon at ENO. For the chorus they offer a chance to shine. For directors, an opportunity to demonstrate what can be achieved on a low budget. For soloists, most of whom will have cut their teeth in church and cathedral choirs, they unite two sides of a musical personality. Which is all very Jungian and therefore appropriate to Tippett.

As ever, it is Tippett's orchestral writing that most impresses in A Child of Our Time. His use of vernacular (blues and tango) is fluent, his fugal technique dazzling, his narrative succinct. But I still find something bogus in this painfully sincere work. Regardless of their melodic heft, Tippett's double-choir appropriations of "Steal Away", "Deep River" and the other spirituals have a chemically straightened, bleached quality, while the sentiments in the soprano aria "How should I cherish my man?" are unconvincingly prioritised from a maternal point of view. (The lyrics are Tippett's own.) Though sung and acted brilliantly by Susan Gritton, Timothy Robinson, Brindley Sherratt - Sara Fulgoni might have been singing in Bulgarian for all I could hear - and the ENO chorus, and played with focus and conviction by the orchestra under Martyn Brabbins, Jonathan Kent's seamless staging only deepened my doubts about this oratorio.

Many of the images in Kent's production - his first for ENO - were familiar. Indeed, but for the flawless precision of Linda Dobell's choreography, the elegance of Mark Henderson's lighting, the understated tones of Paul Brown's bleak, clever set, and the infrequent but impactful moments of stillness, Kent was guilty of preaching to the choir. The frisson when the chorus knelt like hostages with their heads to their knees and their hands behind their backs as row upon row of blades were suspended over their necks was interesting, but the catalogue of older atrocities rapidly palled. Gym-bunnies in Y-fronts, Christian Boltanksi lightbulbs and symbolically exploding trees are hardly new to this company. Nor, I think, is the moment when the chorus hold up photographs of loved ones who have (been) disappeared. Do we really need to see a dozen well-fed actors and singers stripped and led into a smoking pit in order to understand the Holocaust? Does it deepen our sense of connection? I don't think so.

It is ironic that the two most powerful and popular choral commentaries on the Second World War were written by non-combatants. But in the week of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Tippett's 1944 paean to pacifism under any circumstance rings particularly hollow. The message, oft-repeated in A Child of Our Time, is, isn't war terrible? To which the only appropriate answer is, duh, yes; to be followed a little later, perhaps, with the uncomfortable realisation that it is sometimes a necessary evil and that only with the benefit of hindsight can we know whether military action was justified. In the case of the Second World War, we know it was. I think Kent's production is less problematic than the material he had to work with. But for those who'd like to hear A Child of Our Time sans staging, ENO's unticketed concert performance at St Paul's Cathedral tonight (with a retiring collection in aid of the tsunami appeal) offers another opportunity to assess Tippett's most popular work.

Scottish Opera has entered its leanest year in a semi-suicidal frenzy of art-for-art's-sake programming. Even as his beleaguered company begs, begs and begs again for help from the Scottish Executive, Sir Richard Armstrong, Scottish Opera's outgoing MD, is taking the highbrow where most would favour the low. Hence October's new production was a box-office-be-damned double-bill of Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung - my happiest memory of which was overhearing one audience member assure his wife that the second opera would be cheerier than the first - and this month's groovy winter warmer is The Knot Garden.

Unsurprisingly, last Saturday's performance was not sold out. But Tippett's hippie-dippy opera - the first to include a black bisexual character - has come in for some rough criticism since its 1970 premiere, man. The Knot Garden is as much of a period piece as a Provençal chicken brick; with characters who might have walked out of the pages of an early Iris Murdoch novel, childlike faith in the rough magic of psychoanalytical catharsis, dated argot, an electric guitar, and a disconcerting device that sees plants in the audience intone their response to the antepenultimate scene like brainwashed members of a cult. Like A Child of Our Time, it raises questions that it cannot answer and admits no debate. But it is also funny, fast-moving, sympathetic, beautifully scored and, in Flora's sudden, stunned quotation of Schubert's "Die liebe Farbe" at the close of Act II, genuinely affecting.

Director-designer Antony McDonald's production is smart, spacious, and alert to the periodicity of Tippett's pet enthusiasms while managing to reflect a more contemporary cynicism in his reading of Mangus (Peter Savidge); the Jungian guru who controls the other characters. With the exception of Rachel Hynes's Denise, whose tessitura allows little clarity, the diction and physical characterisation of each member of the cast is excellent. Jane Irwin (Thea), Andrew Shore (Faber), Hilton Marlton (Dov), Derrick Parker (Mel), and, most especially, Rachel Nicholls (Flora) bridge sexual slapstick and psychological crises stylishly, the orchestra play well under Armstrong, and, once again, I have cause to regret an Arts Council carve-up that prevents those south of the border from seeing such exceptional work.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'A Child of Our Time': St Paul's Cathedral, London EC4 (020 7246 8348), tonight. 'The Knot Garden': Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000), Thur and Sat

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