Putting the boo in Nabucco

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The Independent Culture
THE BEST thing about the Wexford Opera Festival last year was Rimsky-Korsakov's May Night, and the best thing about May Night was the conductor: a formidably precocious 23-year-old Russian called Wladimir Jurowski from whom, it was pretty obvious, we'd be hearing more. But no one could have known how soon.

This week he made an unanticipated Covent Garden debut, replacing Edward Downes in a new production of Nabucco; and how he got there makes an interesting story. This Nabucco is actually the WNO staging by Tim Albery that opened in Cardiff last autumn. Downes saw it there, disliked it, and promptly withdrew. And he wasn't the only objector. It was booed in Cardiff, it was booed again on Tuesday night in London, and the press and radio this week have made a song and dance about it. But without, I think, good cause.

I don't say the show is unimpeachable: the costume designs are affectedly camp, the pace of the production flags, and it clearly isn't Albery's best work. But the reason for the booing is that it doesn't deliver some cosy Every-Child's-Book-of-the-Bible idea of ancient Israelites with tea- towels on their heads, weeping for Jerusalem in what looks like a quiet corner of the British Museum. Instead, and far more interestingly, Albery stages it as the universal experience of the Jews through history; and although he doesn't avoid the obvious - Auschwitz, cattle-trucks, and Palestinian militiamen - the obvious here is unavoidable. What's more, it's rescued from banality by semi-abstract sets, suggestive rather than demonstrative; and if they don't exactly follow the prescriptions of the libretto, neither does Verdi's score which, apart from the sensitivity for the father-daughter scenes, is more tuneful than profound. If anything, Albery's staging dignifies the piece - as does the quality of his cast, led by the steady, sympathetic, handsomely affirmative Nabucco of Alexandru Agache. Nina Rautio storms the dambusting role of Abigaille with a lubricated resonance that resists the temptation to squall and encompasses a gaping pitch-span with assurance. Samuel Ramey's Zaccaria is a thing of beauty and distinction. And Dennis O'Neill makes an undemonstrative but well- sung Ismaele.

As for Wladimir Jurowski, he may not have (as yet) the combative command of Carlo Rizzi, who conducted the Nabucco in Cardiff, but he's certainly as musical, potentially more individual, and maybe more exciting. The results at the Garden confirmed what I thought at Wexford, that this is a sensationally promising conductor: someone British opera companies should court while he's affordable.

Easter brought with it the standard calendrical spotlight on choral and organ music, with Messiahs, Matthew Passions and the like luring audiences back to church. But for the rest of the year church recitals tend to be pitifully under-attended, and a few weeks ago the Royal College of Organists held a gloom-filled seminar on the whole subject. The problem, basically, is: who wants to sit on a hard pew in a cold, damp building, listening to a debilitated instrument (Britain's stock of ecclesiastical organs is not in good shape), played by someone that you can't even see?

The organ's future, if there is one, seems to lie in concert halls; but even there, it plays an ever- smaller role. The Festival Hall organ spends most of the time closed up, with shutters covering half the show-pipes, so you barely notice its existence. The Barbican has no organ at all. And although Birmingham Symphony Hall has an organ case, there's nothing in it. The single item of good news here is that Manchester's new Bridgewater Hall, which opens in September, has just completed the installation of an organ which is clearly regarded as central to the life of the building. Designed by the Danish firm Marcussen & Son, the final pipes were fitted last week. They are being voiced at this moment.

And in a calculated gesture of audience outreach, the hall has appointed an organist-in-residence, Wayne Marshall, who is everything most organists are not: sleek, stylish, laid-back, charismatic, young, and black. Last month I heard him play the piano at Smith Square, accompanying the clarinettist Richard Stolzman, and it was the only BBC Lunchtime Concert I've ever known to turn into a jam session - delivered with the sort of musicianship that commands superlatives but defies categorisation of any kind. It may be that salvation for the British organ does indeed lie in Manchester.

Another superlative musician who defies categorisation is Mandy Patinkin: not, as yet, a household name in Britain - when he turned up for an appointment at the BBC last week they were apparently, and not entirely unreasonably, expecting a woman - but known to anyone with an interest in Stephen Sondheim as part of the package. Patinkin played George in Sunday in the Park when it premiered on Broadway in 1984, and since then he has become a Sondheimite icon: one of the composer's most loyal and most effective interpreters, as well as a big name in the other classic Broadway repertory.

But it takes a while for Broadway reputations to cross the Atlantic, and so it was only this week that modestly, in the small, decidedly off- Broadway circumstances of the Almeida Theatre, Islington, he launched himself in London with a one-man cabaret. It was a no-frill night: just him and piano, with a chair, a hand-towel and a lot of sweat the only props. And for two hours, without interval, he was the centre of the world: magnificent, electrifying, generating enough energy to run the Underground (and they could do with it). The voice isn't so lovely - there's a wide spread on sustained notes - but it's unmistakable, floating mostly in a falsetto-like high tenor but with an almost self- contained capacity to plumb a rich bass depth. Critically for music theatre where the words count, his diction is immaculate. And what makes him so right for Sondheim is the sheer intensity of his delivery, which swerves somewhere between exhilaration and neurosis. Two hours of him is about as much as anyone could take, but they're two hours of awesome artistry. Ecstatic, not to say addictive.

'Nabucco': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Wed & Fri.