Shepherding Gluck into the 20th century

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The Independent Culture
CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK is remembered as the reformer who cleaned up the voice-indulging excesses of early 18th-century opera, just in time for Mozart to materialise and reap the benefits. In a sense he was the man who scrubs the lavatories before royalty arrives. And you could argue that his zeal was self-denying: that his mature work comes nobly sanitised, a model of artistic hygiene, but so preoccupied with stripping away the dirt of the past that not much remains beyond severe, slow-moving tableaux set to music of extreme solemnity. More liturgy than theatre. Certainly he is more studied than staged: of the 20 or so major stage-works in his catalogue, only Orfeo ed Euridice has survived in standard repertory. But 1996 has the makings of a Year of Gluck in Scotland. He dominates the opera schedule of this summer's Edinburgh Festival and, in Glasgow, Scottish Opera has just opened a new production of Alceste, the piece that first itemised Gluck's reforms in a published preface to its score.

Alceste is undeniably austere: a ceremony of mourning for the deaths of its two principal characters, which haven't happened yet but can be anticipated as such things only can in the classical world of oracles and ascertainable destiny. The story is adapted from Euripides. But Alceste is actually more than ceremonial and static choruses. At its heart - and especially at the heart of Gluck's revised, French-language version which Scottish Opera use - is a profoundly human testament of love put to the ultimate test. Offering her own life for her husband's, Alceste becomes one of the great self-sacrificing heroines of the lyric stage; and with so much magnificent valediction on offer in the process, you can appreciate why the role is a favourite for star singers on the way out. It supplied Janet Baker's farewell to Covent Garden, and Kirsten Flagstad's to the Met.

At Glasgow, though, it marks the opposite: the UK opera debut of Isabelle Vernet, a much talked-of French soprano who fulfils some of the potential of the role but not all. The voice is very nearly very good - dramatic, full, affecting, individual - but it's also overblown, pushing the top unevenly and losing pitch at phrase-ends. In many ways I preferred the Admetus, Mark Padmore, who is less demonstrative and slightly reedy but controlled, intelligent, extremely musical, and sensitive to the stylistic ground-rules of the genre. As is Nicholas McGeegan, conducting, who peps up the pace and rhythmic energy but never to the point where Gluck's noble intentions are distorted. Altogether it's a fine show, and well-served by a director, Yannis Kokkos, who leads it gently and with dignity (as opposed to kicking and screaming) into the 20th century. The Greek peasants seem to be in Paul Smith suits, but unobtrusively - proving that people in Paul Smith suits actually look like Greek peasants.

Back in the 1960s, Malcolm Williamson must have looked like a very plausible successor to Benjamin Britten. He was talented, prolific, turning out scores in every operatic genre - full scale, chamber, for the church, for children - until suddenly the momentum stopped and he settled into the existence of a conspicuously quiet Master of the Queen's Music. New works, and performances, come few and far between these days. But last weekend Morley College staged a semi-pro production of English Eccentrics, the chamber opera Williamson adapted from Edith Sitwell's famous book for the 1964 Aldeburgh Festival, and it was fascinating. A pageant of madness and the sort of thing Virgil Thomson might have done transatlanticly - although he wouldn't have done it so well - English Eccentrics romps unevenly but riotously through a truly crazed cast of characters, lingering with some, herding together others. The score is mischievous, eclectic, flowering into Latin rhythms just a mite too readily but otherwise replete with parodies of English Pastoral, Stravinsky and Britten, and succeeding where this sort of thing often doesn't, because it's done with affection. Had Walton - an obvious candidate - tackled English Eccentrics, it would have been more brilliant but more brittle. Williamson softens the charge with pathos, and some deftly cultivated scoring for the six-man orchestra. With sophisticated playing and surprisingly accomplished singing under young conductor William Lacey, the production was something of an event; and maybe a signal that the time has come to look at Williamson's old works anew.

To make headlines in music it helps to be old, like Ilya Musin, 93, conducting the RPO last week; or better still, young, like the 18-year-old violinist Rafal Payne who won the BBC Young Musician finals in Birmingham last weekend. Every time this competition comes round it prompts the same debate about the readiness of the teenage contestants for the exposure, and the feasibility of comparing incomparables - including, this year, a percussionist playing Richard Rodney Bennett, a bassoonist playing Mozart, and a trombonist playing a concerto by Gordon Jacob that sounded like the title music to a TV series about country vets. How you evaluate common qualities of musicianship in that lot, I wouldn't care to say.

But I would say that the terms on which the Young Musician runs - sponsored as always by Lloyds Bank - have improved. The atmosphere in Symphony Hall was as remote from the old blood-sports idea of public competition as reasonably possible; and having the National Youth Orchestra rather than a professional band to accompany the concertos set the right tone.

And yes, the jury did come to the right decision. There was no blindingly obvious winner this time, as there was in 1994 when Natalie Clein swept the board with an Elgar Cello Concerto of astonishing maturity. But Rafal Payne played Khachaturyan's glitzy, cinematic Violin Concerto with style, assurance and a definite edge over the others - including pianist Julien Cheriyan, who played the Grieg A Minor Concerto with uncommon clarity but a temperament more obviously Mozartian than "warhorse", and percussionist Sam Walton, who clearly has the gift of hitting things with sensitivity but chose a concerto that didn't give him much chance to be virtuosic too. The snappy-dresser prize went to bassoonist Benjamin Hudson whose matching check two-piece paid tribute to his declared interests - clubbing and shopping - and suggested an off-stage personality that didn't quite show through in his Mozart. But then, projecting what you are into how you sound can be a lifelong challenge. Technique comes easy by comparison; and if there's one lesson to be learnt from the BBC Young Musician, that must be it.

`Alceste' continues Wed & Sat: 0141 332 9000.