OPERA / The cake that didn't rise: Force of Destiny; Tosca; Duenna

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The Independent Culture
THE DIFFERENCE between Puccini's heroines and Verdi's is the difference between Pre-Raphaelite portraiture and dot-to-dot. Puccini gives you the picture in detail, down to the last tuck of the crinoline: all the singer has to do is learn to walk in it. But Verdi leaves a demarcated space: an open prospect to be occupied more than manoeuvred in. And that applies even to a woman like Leonora in The Force of Destiny, whose dramatic life is narrow-gauge, shunted through the opera on the consequences of a patricidal love-encounter in the first scene. It is still a gift to a forceful lyric-dramatic soprano who knows how to make passivity compelling. And such is Josephine Barstow in the new ENO production that opened on Wednesday.

Barstow's Leonora is the sort of woman, you feel, who can only be enriched by the rough hand life deals her. She begins in a spinsterly fluster, delivering her shall- I-shan't-I-go-with-the-mulatto-who's-just-climbed-through-the-window? routine with the bleat of someone past the bloom of youth who knows she may never get a man through the window again. But having made her choice and suffered from it she acquires the stature of experience, and an enlivening humanity.

Vocally, Barstow is more dramatic than lyric, and there were tender moments on Wednesday that were tender in the wrong way, that is to say, sore. But she is a potent and courageous all-round artist who wrings every last drop of expressive juice from the role and at the same time delivers its more celebrated vocal stunts - such as the sudden ascent to the pianissimo B flat in her Act 4 aria: a test of perfect placement - rather beautifully. She is pursued by a sharply focused Carlo, Jonathan Summers, and wooed by an Alvaro, Edmund Barham, with a big voice but not much personality. If he came through my window I wouldn't be too sure about it either.

The production looked strong on paper: Nicholas Hytner directing, Mark Elder conducting, a new translation by Jeremy Sams - all the ingredients for the cake to rise. And yet it didn't. Hytner tells the story in peremptory, almost comic-strip terms that work well enough in the lighter genre scenes (which he plays for the entertainment they are, with showbiz chutzpah in the chorus handling) but not in the core narrative. Everything seems to come with a wry smile, as though the ironic humour of Melitone's numbers (nicely done by Alan Opie) fixed the tone of the whole piece. Richard Hudson's revolving Busby Berkeley staircase set and Quality Street costumes don't help. And apart from exposed set-changes that carry the action from one scene to the next, there isn't the cohesive sense of Hand of Fate (or the stifling presence of 17th-century Spanish Catholicism) to marshal the characters through what is otherwise a sequence of absurd coincidences. Only Mark Elder manages that; and even he, a fine Verdi conductor, wasn't on top form. The orchestral sound was deep, refined, but muted and unmemorable.

Perversely, Covent Garden's old Zeffirelli-revised Cox Tosca was highly memorable - not least for its top-price seats at pounds 250, but also for the unsubtle but spectacular double-act of Luciano Pavarotti and Zubin Mehta. Pavarotti is like a beached whale, oddly helpless and engagingly vulnerable when he delivers his set-piece arias rooted to the spot with one eye fixed on the conductor, the other on the prompt box. The voice, however, is all there: darker than it used to be but full, fruity and singing everyone else offstage - including the Tosca, Elizabeth Holleque, a young American soprano who does what she was presumably engaged to do and turns in a competent supporting role.

Less easily suppressed is Silvano Carroli's Scarpia - an awesome piece of olde-tyme lechery complete with curlng lips and heavily mascara'd eyes (an act of supererogation from the make-up department, I would suggest) that suggest a reincarnate synthesis of Liberace, Uncle Fester and a wardrobe-conscious enemy of Batman. Splendid stuff, if not exactly school of David Freeman, and sung with dark, dry but impressively strong colouring. Mehta colours the orchestral sound a trifle splashily but makes a brilliant show of it: this is one of the best opera performances I've heard him give.

Opera North's new season opened on Thursday with the British premiere of Roberto Gerhard's The Duenna: an Anglo-Hispanic curiosity, written in the 1940s when Gerhard was exiled in England, which sets Sheridan's play to the lilt of Spanish dance tunes. It sounds like a homesick postcard - which, as events proved, took a long while to reach home because the first staging took place only this year, in Madrid. Opera North has been quick off the mark in following up with its own production by Helena Kaut Howson. I think Opera North does it better.

What commends the piece is its exhilarating lyrical panache: a sort of post-Schoenbergian flamenco, with vernacular materials modernistically revisited. It mixes speech and singing more effectively than many a Broadway musical. And it's fun: a carnival entertainment in the genre of Nielsen's Maskarade, which Ms Kaut Howson has also directed for Opera North.

Its weakness is that the textures are dense, the ideas prolific, and a very busy action gets lost in an even busier orchestration that doesn't take enough notice of the words. It also has a messy opening that Gerhard would no doubt rework if he were still alive.

In Madrid the problems were compounded by a hyperactive staging; but Opera North has done some serious sorting out. It's clearer now, the comedy is sharper, and beautifully handled by the fine singing actors Eric Roberts, Gillian Knight and the superlative Andrew Shore. Sue Blane's Gaudiesque designs are a delight. And Antoni Ros-Marba gets a wonderfully authentic quality of sound from the orchestra and chorus. It all convinced me that even if Gerhard's Duenna hasn't the theatrecraft of Prokofiev's better-known version, it certainly makes a viable competitor.

On the subject of musical exiles, it wasn't long after Gerhard settled in England that William Walton settled in Italy, on the Neapolitan island of Ischia where Mediterranean warmth softened whatever remained of the pomp and circumstantial manner in his earlier scores. Lady Walton still lives there; and for the past three years she has opened her doors to a summer school where a small, elite corps of young singers (English and Italian) study issues in performance. This year its resources were concentrated on just six singers, who received intensive coaching in Cimarosa's comic opera Il Matrimonio Segreto from the likes of the director Colin Graham and accompanist Martin Isepp prior to performances in Ischia and Scotland (Haddo House, near Aberdeen, 14 Oct).

The interest of this course is that it concerns itself not with vocal accomplishment - which is assumed - but with interpretation: learning to live the text in recitatives, to pace dialogue, and to field answers as though the question had never been heard before. If it sounds elementary, it isn't. And although Colin Graham's methods are unfashionably authoritarian in the way they police every move and leave little to individual discretion, they come charged with experience - not least from all the years he spent nursing the later Britten operas on the stage. It would enlighten many an operagoer to watch him. Many a critic too.

'Force of Destiny' continues Tues & Fri (071-836 3161); 'Tosca', tomorrow & Thurs (071-240 1066); 'Duenna', Fri (0532 459351).

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