The Critics: Famous for 15 minutes, lame for 165

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Der Rosenkavalier

Glasgow Theatre Royal

Daniel Barenboim


London Mozart Players



Maly Theatre of St Petersburg

It isn't hard to woo an audience with the final 15 minutes of Der Rosenkavalier, so long as you have three celestial voices and a soft heart. The new Scottish Opera production in Glasgow does that last-lap wooing well enough. Joan Rodgers's uncommonly youthful Marschallin triumphs over vocal limitations and a dodgy haircut to float her Act III lines with a sumptuous softness that eludes her in Act I. Stella Doufexis - a German mezzo, little known as yet in Britain - makes a suitably boyish Octavian. And there's one real star here in the young Scottish soprano Lisa Milne. She's a touch too voluptuous for Sophie, and periodically looks as though she's about to tell Octavian a dirty joke, but she sings with beauty, style and absolute assurance. It's a serious voice, and well- advanced on the approach road to a very serious career.

So - thanks to those last 15 minutes - the curtain falls on something that feels like a triumph, and on the opening night it was rapturously received. But Rosenkavalier is more than its closing scene, and I'm not sure that the other 180-odd minutes of the piece provide that much (apart from Lisa Milne) to cheer.

The production is by David McVicar, a Glasgwegian local hero with well- received work to his name and, by common consent, a talent on the rise. But in this case it rises nowhere, beyond the basics of straightforward story-telling. With a few minor adjustments to taste (like the Marschallin's hair), it's conventional 18th-century wigs-and-crinolines stuff that's neither sharp nor stylish. And it makes almost nothing of the comedy of class that fuels so many of the jokes in Rosenkavalier. The niceties of town and country manners, of aristocratic condescension and bourgeois ambition, barely register. And how can they, when McVicar (who designs as well as directs) gives the Marschallin's palace and Faninal's town house the same set? It works perfectly for Act I, where the spot of damp and peripheral decay in the palace bedroom sets the right tone for an ancien regime on its way out. Pressed into service for the glittering, new, self-made world of Faninal, it doesn't work at all.

Nor does the handling of Baron Ochs - a character so critical to the piece that, as originally planned, it carried his name. McVicar has encouraged Peter Rose, the Ochs here, to play cool and subtle with what are otherwise the pantomime gestures of the role.

But at the end of the day, Ochs is a comic character, defined by laughter. Here, the laughs come rationed, elegantly sung but underplayed to the point of extinction. Accompanied by scruffy playing from the Scottish Opera orchestra under Richard Armstrong (who lets them get away with it) this Rosenkavalier is not the triumph it purports to be.

For a long while now, Daniel Barenboim has not been the pianist he originally purported to be either. Seduced by the stick, his career these days centres on conducting, with keyboard appearances largely confined to self-directed concertos. Recitals come at a premium; and he hadn't given one in London for years until last Sunday, when he filled the Royal Festival Hall with a full and - thanks to Hilary and Jackie - curious audience for a programme of Beethoven and Debussy.

There was a strong sense of the event about this concert - a sense, almost, of recovering something lost to the past. But if Barenboim himself shared those feelings, he didn't yield to them in his playing, which came stripped clean of nostalgia and sentiment. His Beethoven - the sonatas Opus 13 and 109 - was more classical than romantic: sharp in attack, precise, intelligent, and with a crystalline transparency that I'd guess has something to do with the causal relationship between posture and tone.

Barenboim is a small man with a high piano-stool that he sits against rather than on, like a monk in a misericord. That leaves his legs at 45 degrees, his arms outstretched, and with no obvious sign of bodily support to whatever weight he gives his playing. It all seems to come from the hands alone, with a stabbing muscularity that defines the detail in his finger-work.

In his Debussy Preludes, Book 1, it was much the same story: "classically" told, and resistant to the idea of these miniatures as fleeting moments of pure atmosphere and colour. For Barenboim they were skin in need of bone, which he inserted, for the most part, cleanly and incisively into extremely fine, if not especially idiomatic, readings. I enjoyed them.

But it was revealing to watch, later that night on Channel 4, Christopher Nupen's TV film about Jacqueline du Pre, with its archive footage of Barenboim playing chamber music in the early 1970s. Then, there was a heady and exhilarating vigour. Now, it's hardened into something far more calculated.

Britain has no seriously ancient orchestras like the Gewandhaus or the Dresden Staatskapelle, so the 50th anniversary of the London Mozart Players this year makes it the oldest chamber ensemble we have. The event was marked on Thursday with a gala at the RFH. It was a night of memories and, no doubt, nostalgia for the days when the LMP enjoyed a higher profile than it does now, resident in Croydon. And the Mozart it programmed for the gala was, I think, indicative of its current standards: crafted, competent but unexciting. The one notable thing on the bill was a new Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned from John Woolrich. It was a piece of reconstructed neoclassicism - based on a repeating figure that perambulates throughout the instrumental groups with a threatening insistence that is half way between early Tippett and late Hitchcock. It amounts to music of ancipation, waiting - through a 20-minute span - for something that never quite arrives. I was intrigued by it but thought the ideas needed larger, more diversely coloured forces than the LMP to make their point.

The entertainment of the week was a production of Tosca by something originally advertised as the "Maly Theatre of St Petersburg". By the time it arrived at the Hackney Empire for a one-night stand on Tuesday it had turned into the vaguer "Russian National Opera Stars on Tour".

The sudden lack of specificity may not be unconnected with the fact that half the company had travelled here from Chisinau (don't ask me for directions) by a fleet of coaches, only to be (a) stuck in an avalanche on the Romanian border and (b) detained at Dover for illegally importing alcohol. Only in Russia ...

What they finally delivered to the Hackney Empire was a priceless piece of honest kitsch: breast-clutching, half- indifferent, half-pantomime. Yet, in its grotesque way, it was oddly wonderful. And brutally direct. The Scarpia bore an unnerving resemblance to Danny La Rue (his dying spasms were the highlight of the show); the Tosca's chief dramatic motive seemed to be the preservation of her wig; and the High Mass in Act I was pure French and Saunders - the funniest thing I've seen in years, with the Chisinau bootleggers in ecclesiastical overdrive.

But the most bizarre thing of all was that these people can sing - and sing so well you can't dismiss them as an aberration. Ludmilla Magomedova's Tosca had the vocal presence of a younger Vishnevskaya: if she could act she'd be a star. And you could say the same for other members of the cast I saw, whose vocal stature brought a dignity and pathos to what would otherwise be simple nonsense. I can only recommend it. As a cultural experience.

'Rosenkavalier': Glasgow Theatre Royal (0141 332 9000), Thurs; 'Tosca': touring the UK to 15 March (01634 819141).