Superb songs of Troy

Classical Music
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The Independent Culture
WHEN the wraps came off the new Glyndebourne opera house last year it met with general applause, except from a few veteran picnickers who sighed that things would Never Be The Same Again. And in a way they were right: Glyndebourne is casting off its cushioned, cottage-industry past and marching to the front line of a bold, risk-taking future. It opened this week with Rossini's virtually unknown opera seria (ie no jokes) Ermione, followed by Harrison Birtwistle's Second Mrs Kong (jokes that mostly passed the audience by). I'd call that bravery beyond the call of duty.

Ermione is a mystery piece: why was it taken off after its first performance in 1819 and never staged again until Pesaro unearthed it in 1987? A possible answer is that Rossini plundered the score for two succeeding operas in the 1820s, allowing the failed original to pass quietly into oblivion. But why did it fail? The music may not be Rossini's best but it has striking moments of dramatic power, concentrated into a sequence of confrontational duets that run through the piece like a spinal chord. It also challenges the purity of early-19th-century operatic "number" form, which may of course be why the 1819 audience didn't like it.

But the story is strong: a classical narrative, from Euripides via Racine, of two women struggling for different kinds of survival in the aftermath of the Trojan Wars. In the vanquished corner is Andromache (mezzo), widow of Hector; in the victor's corner is Hermione (soprano), betrothed to Pyrrhus, who would actually rather have Andromache. For much of the opera it isn't clear who is the leading lady. But the soprano ultimately takes charge as she plans her vengeance, commissions Orestes (tenor) to kill Pyrrhus and is rewarded with a gran scena of towering stature. In fact the final act packs into its brief duration a considerable punch, which is delivered here by some wonderfully impressive voices. Anna Caterina Antonacci, in the title role, is one of the most exciting young bel canto specialists on the international circuit (she sang Hermione in a London concert performance three years ago), with a tone that thins into hardness under pressure but still gives value. Diana Montague's Andromache is richly veiled in true, tragic nobility: a glorious performance. And Bruce Ford, the Orestes, is an unsurpassable Ros-sini tenor: focused, firm, immaculately clear and beautiful to hear.

In the pit is the LPO playing with refinement for Andrew Davis; and the production is by Graham Vick who has, these days, the certain touch of someone who can do no wrong. Discarding togas and temples, he relocates the action to the neo-classicism of the early 19th century - we might be in Ludwig I's Munich, post-Napoleonic Naples or any princeling state with epic attitude - and to a single set (Richard Hudson) that recreates the auditorium of a 19th-century opera house. The idea is that these characters are playing to each other, conscious of the roles that victory and defeat respectively create. It makes a valid point, looks stunning, and its theatricality accommodates the scale of passion that the music needs.

Birtwistle's Kong is a different, hairier, animal. It premiered on the Glyndebourne Tour last autumn before this promotion to the Festival with much the same cast, and in a sense it is a festival piece. The staging (Tom Cairns) is all high-tech spectacle and bristles with ironic, slightly donnish humour: everyone in the dramatis personae is dead or mythic or conceptual, and the kernel of the story is an attempted, unsurprisingly abortive love match between a celluloid gorilla and a girl in a painting. In other words, surreal fun with a poignant underlay of pathos that was genuinely entertaining last time round.

But this time round it doesn't work so well. The diction is less clear, the audience less responsive to the genre. And the genre is late-20th- century Wagner: a grand mythology overwhelmed by an even grander orchestra. What you see is certainly engaging, but it remains a clear case of prima la musica, the musica residing in an extremely heavy orchestration, churning steadily and thickly like a molten lava flow that cakes whatever text falls in its path. There are major problems of balance in this score, and the conductor Elgar Howarth isn't so obviously on top of them as he was before - which makes it all a hard sing. But Philip Langridge's Kong is well-paced, with enough voice at the end for an effectively lyrical sign-off; and Helen Field as the girl in the frame manages to project a sense of innocence at lung-emptying volume.

'Ermione' (Tues & Sat) and 'Kong' (Wed & Sun): Glyndebourne, 0127 381 3813. 'Ermione' will be broadcast on Channel 4, Sat 7pm.