Opera: So farewell then, Covent Garden

The Royal Opera says good bye to the House with an epic 'Palestrina'; Vanessa-Mae says hello to a world tour at the RFH
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The Independent Culture
With just one new production in this final season before the builders arrive and chaos reigns, Covent Garden knows it has to count for something. Pfitzner's epic Palestrina, which opened on Tuesday, counts about enough for me to say the house is going down with some guns blazing.

The pull of Palestrina is that it's a rare piece - never staged in Britain except for what I vaguely remember as a brave but doomed-to-failure semi- pro attempt at the Collegiate Theatre years ago - with a contentious reputation: fiercely championed as the last great monument of German Romantic opera and just as fiercely rubbished as a monumental bore. Half the opera personnel of Europe seemed to be in Tuesday's audience. I'm not sure what conclusions they'll have reached.

Pfitzner is certainly a problem. A contemporary and compatriot of Richard Strauss, he lived in Strauss's shadow, shared his equivocal, heads-down war record, and to some extent rewrote his music - never quite as well. In short, he was an old-school reactionary who spent much of his life railing against the tides of change, while Strauss, the greater, ultimately nobler figure, rode them out with grace and style. Palestrina was part of that lifelong protest: a portrait of the artist as hero, standing fast against the shifting ground of cultural decline. And one of the (many) uncomfortable things about it is that it speaks too obviously and too insistently in the first person. Four and a half hours of "See how I suffer for my art" becomes a trifle wearing.

The story - Pfitzner's own, taken loosely from history - tells of a 16th-century Italian composer who, defeated by age and fashion, has stopped writing. Meanwhile music is in crisis, and he is persuaded (by a visitation of angels and exhumed "old masters") to come to its rescue with a great Mass setting that asserts the pure, true values of tradition. In other words, he cleans up the over-embellished act of 16th-century polyphony, and the world rejoices.

It has to be said that while the proprieties of liturgical counterpoint keep many a scholar I know awake at night, they don't offer much cut and thrust to the opera stage. This all too sober example of Kunstlerdrama (in an operatic tradition that runs from Wagner's Meistersinger to Hindemith's Mathis der Maler) leaves Covent Garden's production team of Nikolaus Lehnhof and Tobias Hoheisel at a loss.

There's nothing of the sharp, incisive ingenuity that made their Janacek series such a hit for Glyndebourne, and nothing of the spectacle the piece demands to fill its longeurs - not even in the visitation scene, where the "old masters" seem to have been vandalised to death and carry their heads under their arms like dozily decapitated extra-terrestrials.

As for Pfitzner's middle act, which devotes 75 long, largely irrelevant minutes to the proceedings of the Council of Trent and tries to lighten them with jokes that could only make a German laugh (if that), Lehnhof and Hoheisel seem to abandon decks, and I'm not sure I blame them.

But before you bin your tickets, there are redeeming features which make Palestrina worthwhile. They include music of beguiling, if stately, beauty throughout Acts I and III. It roams the hinterland of Late Romantic open- ended melody connecting Strauss to Korngold, but with motivic repetitions and cadential sequences that say Bruckner. And I should add that although Palestrina was completed in 1915, when Korngold was still an adolescent, Korngold's Tote Stadt followed soon after. We're talking prodigies here.

The truly perverse thing about the piece, though, is that the less beautiful Act II makes the greatest demands, extravagantly cast for cohorts of soloists who don't individually have much to sing but need to make an impression. Covent Garden has cast at strength, with artists like Kurt Rydl, Sergei Leiferkus, Thomas Allen, Robert Tear, and Nicolai Gedda, no less, in the tiny character-part of an Assyrian Patriarch. And with such a roster, it's a pity the house couldn't have found a more striking tenor than Thomas Moser for the title role: he doesn't establish enough character to hold the opera together, and shows signs of real strain toward the end of the admittedly taxing Act I. But there's attractive support from his two "sons", written as Hosenrolle and sung here by Randi Stene and Ruth Ziesak. Above all, there's some enormously impressive conducting from Christian Thielemann, the young German of the moment who seems to have made a quantum leap forward in his career since he was last at the Garden, conducting Elektra. Focused, charismatic and authoritative, he has been taken up by Deutsche Grammophon who are earnestly positioning him in the lineage of Karajan as a master of core Austro-German repertory; he takes charge of the Berlin Deutsche Oper next season; and he is as persuasive a champion of this opera as I can imagine, commanding its moments of vision and its quarter-hours of sloth with equal power. For him, if for no other reason, Palestrina should indeed be seen - at least, Acts I and III. Act II works nicely as a dinner break.

Don't miss a second, though, of the Rosenkavalier revival which opened at ENO on Wednesday and stopped my heart more than once with the sheer loveliness of the central performances. One of Rosenkavalier's preoccupations is the passing of time and dissolution of social order; and the way Jonathan Miller's production updates everything to just before the Great War, when the piece was written and time was running out on the Marschallins and Octavians of Viennese society faster than their operatic counterparts could ever have imagined, works well even if the execution is chilly.

Miller and his designer Peter J Davison declare this Rosenkavalier a kitsch-free zone, reducing its sugar content with sober sets and clean- cut business that contains the bustle of the big scenes; and you can't help feeling that the radiance of the piece diminishes as a result, like watching TV with the colour-control down.

But what you lose in the dazzle of jewel-encrusted crinolines you gain in clarity and an emotional intelligence that makes its points unsentimentally. And with the superb cast ENO has pulled together for the principal roles, those corny old moments like the first look of love between Octavian and Sophie or the Marchallins' withdrawal after the closing trio rediscover their intensity. Yvonne Kenny's Marschallin is ravishing. Susan Parry's Octavian is hard-edged, slightly hectoring, but real with boyish energy. John Tomlinson is the most fascinatingly original Ochs I've ever seen and, with that big, dark but clear-dictioned resonance, one of the best I've ever heard. And a late replacement, Rosemary Joshua as Sophie, turns out in many ways to be the star of the show, with wonderfully accomplished singing and the sort of charm that melts, but not to syrup. David Atherton's conducting was uneven in Act I and the orchestra untidy, but by Act II things had settled into place. What was happening in the pit became a perfect match for what was happening on stage: restrained, no schmaltz, and utterly compelling. I'd have liked to hear more text , but that's an occupational hazard with Strauss. Don't let it hold you back from this superb revival: just remind yourself of the libretto first.

The occupational hazard with Brahms is that his large-scale works sound higher in cholesterol than spirit, but from the opening of the LSO's Brahms Centenary series at the Barbican on Thursday I'd say Sir Colin Davis has that risk in hand. His reading of the 3rd Symphony promised great things in the weeks ahead, with an unclotted richness in the strings that gave them a convincing sense of forward movement. The accompanying Violin Concerto came less happily, at cautious speeds and with a soloist, Anne-Sophie Mutter, who seemed to play through clenched teeth: all nerve, no tenderness. I didn't like that much, although the audience did. More Brahms next week when the centenary series gathers pace.

'Palestrina' continues Thurs: ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000). 'Rosenkavalier' continues Wed & Sat: Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300).