OPERA / Low notes and high water: Nick Kimberley weather's the Romanian State Opera's British debut

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The Independent Culture
Some of you no doubt think that opera audiences - and critics - are spineless aesthetes who crumble in the face of the slightest adversity. Not so. On Saturday, at Rochester Castle, 4,000 people endured heavy rain, chill winds and a poor sound-system in order to see the UK debut of the Romanian State Opera. Not exactly Pavarotti in the Park, Verdi's Nabucco isn't even a box-office favourite; thanks to TV advertising, everyone knows the Slaves' Chorus, but the rest of the opera is for bel canto maniacs. Yet despite all this, the audience remained cheerful and appreciative. Hardly anyone left before the 11pm finish, which sparked the sort of reception usually reserved for opera's favoured few.

Clearly opera fans are resilient, determined to enjoy their evening whatever the circumstances. Whether what they got here justified that determination is another matter. No one could do much about the weather, although a better-designed stage canopy might have prevented the odd waterfall that splashed over the unfortunate bass-player. Some of the amplification problems were due to the weather, but even before the rains came, the sound was shallow and muddy for the orchestra, tough and metallic for the voices. And who ever thought that the archaic, pinch-penny pageantry of Hero Lupescu's staging was right for the Medway Arts Festival, with its view to the future of Europe?

Of course there are mitigating circumstances. This production dates back to the days of Ceausescu, when Romania was unlikely to produce opera in the way we expect here - and I have to admit that the Cecil B DeMille approach to opera is not entirely extinct in the West. Any project that pours cash into Romanian arts is welcome, and as promoter Ellen Kent said in an interview in the Independent, Romanian State Opera was not doing this for bread and water. Yet there is something condescending, to both performers and audience, in suggesting that, because it's Romanian, we must pat it on the head tolerantly.

Given the problems with the amplification, it is difficult to assess the musical performance. The Abigaille of Rodica Toma is evidently the real East European thing, thrillingly raw and full-blooded in a part that leaves little room for subtlety. In the title role, Vasile Martinoiu's baritone had resonance, but there was a kind of aural veil over the voice that may or may not have been due to the sound-system. The bass Pompei Harasteanu reached the gravelly profundo depths, but by the time the Slaves' Chorus came round, I was too cold to be anything other than grateful that we'd reached the showpiece. The conductor, Cornel Trailescu, seemed able to tap the music's surging energy, although it was not possible to assess just how good his orchestra was.

The Medway Arts Festival deserves all praise for keeping ticket prices at pounds 15 for what was a full-scale international opera production, and the project certainly deserved better weather. I'm less convinced that this kind of import does much good for either British or Romanian opera culture: it had too much the air of the local landowner inviting the village poor in for a Christmas drink.

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