The Critics: Music: Better the devil you don't know

Mephistopheles ENO, London Odyssey Royal Festival Hall, London Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Musikverein, Vienna
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
For German-speakers, this year's Goethe anniversary has been a literary event. But for the rest of us, it's been a musical one. Shakespeare aside, I doubt if any other writer has been so profoundly annexed by composers. Though he tended in his lifetime to back the wrong ones, valuing now-forgotten names above the likes of Schubert, the fact remains that Goethe was responsive to music. He would have been gratified to see how Faust has found its way into the pantheon of favourite opera stories - even if he wouldn't sanction the way composers have adapted it to their own ends.

Arrigo Boito's ends in writing Mephistopheles were actually closer to Goethe's original than those of most operatic treatments. Charles Gounod filleted the text down to its love-interest, focusing on Margareta and abandoning any semblance of philosophical debate; but Boito delivers the whole picture, including Helen of Troy and a spot of Satanic self- analysis. That Gounod's version flourishes in repertory while Boito's flounders in the limbo of nice ideas says something about public taste, which has always favoured operatic appeals to the heart rather than the mind.

But let's not get carried away here. Mephistopheles isn't exactly cerebral in its address - it's an extravagant incitement to dramatic spectacle. And that's why ENO's new staging, which opened last Thursday, has been entrusted to a director with a reputation for all-singing and dancing, semaphore-style theatre: Ian Judge. He doesn't disappoint. His Mephistopheles is a fiesta of swashbuckling theatre-camp that doesn't take itself, or the piece, too seriously. Judge's justification would presumably be that Boito doesn't take it too seriously either.

In fact, it's hard to specify the tone of voice in which Boito speaks, and as the piece is done so rarely, there's no performing tradition for guidance. But one clear thing is that if you sell Mephistopheles as a laugh-a-minute romp, as Judge does, you make it hard for your audience to retune their expectations of the prison scene and feel anything for Margareta's plight. The jokes are funny, but they duck too many issues. The campery makes music of already questionable substance seem distinctly tacky - even though it's well-conducted by Oliver Dohnanyi, well sung by Alastair Miles in the title role, and very well sung by David Rendall as Faust. With bold designs by Tim Goodchild and virtuosic lighting by Simon Corder, it looks pretty good as well. But it still left me with a sense that I'd been watching some rare dancing elephant: well-trained, good fun, but on the white side. It's not a thing of stature.

Talking of rare dancing elephants, the Royal Festival Hall played host on Monday to a performance of Nicholas Maw's Odyssey. The Great British orchestral curiosity of the 1980s is, at 90 minutes, arguably the longest unbroken span of orchestral writing in the whole history of the genre. Whether it can also command the longest unbroken span of audience attention is another matter. Listening to Simon Rattle's performance with the CBSO, I noticed that there were times when this great, epic score betrayed its origins as a 20-minute BBC commission which got out of hand and grew. And grew.

But that said, any sense of self-indulgence in the writing comes mitigated by a near-equal sense of necessity. When you're trying to construct a score out of a 44-bar theme, you need to give it room to manoeuvre. Champions of the piece, like Rattle, would argue that it's not out of proportion to its substance or objectives. And I'd agree with that. Odyssey functions like a giant stock- taking exercise in the emporium of modern (ie post-Romantic) music. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about it is that its 90-minute journey proves to be a journey back into tonality - ending on an resolute, affirmative E flat. As all Wagnerians know, E flat is the note that begins the epic journey of the Ring Cycle, surfacing from the depths of the Rhine like some First Cause in the world order. I assume that's a connection Maw expects his listeners to make.

But however you read the symbolism of Odyssey, it remains a landmark achievement by a British composer who, because he lives abroad, tends to be forgotten here. When he comes back, it's almost as a figure of conscience. He seems to represent values that not many of the fashionable younger composers who have taken his place in the hierarchy of British music could claim for themselves, starting with emotional depth. To hear the benchmark qualities of Odyssey is to appreciate how much of the bright young music currently attracting adulation in the hinterlands of Islingtonia is just trinkets and baubles.

Meanwhile, as the CBSO basked in the afterglow of its relationship with Simon Rattle, I've been on the road with what is probably the least advantaged of the British regional orchestras, the Bournemouth Symphony. With no metropolitan base to call its own, and no real home at all beyond a statistical bias to Poole, the BSO spends most of its life on tour; and it has the nightmarish burden of dealing with 63 local authorities for funding. Yes, that's 63: all giving not too much, but asking plenty in return. Unsurprisingly, the BSO feels like a poor relation to the inner circle of the UK bands. It doesn't pay so well. It finds it hard to fill key jobs. And yet ... the curious thing is that the BSO maintains a high artistic profile. So high that, last weekend, it took up an invitation for a three-night residency in the world's most celebrated concert venue: the Musikverein in Vienna. I caught two nights, both of them triumphant: two full houses, and the programmes fiercely well-received.

The secret of the BSO's success is largely down to a recent history of smart moves in choosing chief conductors. There was Andrew Litton, who has now graduated to Dallas. Then Yakov Kreizburg, who was netted before most of us caught on to what a star he was. With Rattle gone from Birmingham, Kreizburg is probably the classiest act any British regional band can offer. Based in Berlin - where he runs the Komische Opera - but with a big work-load in America as well, he is one of the leading candidates for Andrew Davis's job at Glyndebourne. All of which means that his days at Bournemouth will not be unnumbered. But while he is there, he's delivering outstanding work. What I heard in the Musikverein - one German programme, one Russian - was beyond expectation.

Lean, dark, with a clipped but sweeping Russian-ness, Kreizberg cuts an impressive figure on the podium, his gestures technically immaculate and purposeful. A few nights before, I'd seen the tenor Jose Cura make a fool of himself at the RFH as he tried to sing and conduct at the same time, flapping his arms like a chicken and achieving nothing from an orchestra (the Philharmonia) which blanked him out and watched the Leader. It was the sort of thing we all did as children to recordings, and the most risibly ineffectual pantomime of non-musicianship I've seen in ages.

Kreizberg is the perfect contrast: in command, producing sound as surely as an instrumentalist. Franz Schmidt's Fourth Symphony (one of Kreizberg's party-pieces - he took it to the Proms last year) came beautifully sculpted, firm and strong. The opening thwacks of the "Infernal Dance" in Stravinsky's Firebird Suite rang through the Musikverein with such terrifying force that four people in the row in front of me jumped, literally, out of their seats. The hall's superb acoustic groomed the strings to an uncommon sheen. There were some glorious solos, especially from the principal cello. And there was a particularly impressive mezzo for Mahler's Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen: Jane Irwin, a Glasgow-based singer who has been around for a while but has suddenly emerged as something special. Powerfully expressive, with a big range, she could be a hot contender as the next British Brunnhilde or Isolde.

Overall, then, this was an outstanding residency that only begged the question of what a band like Bournemouth might achieve if it had a hall like the Musikverein to play in every day. Trudging round the south-west, cap in hand to all those 63 authorities, is no substitute.

`Mephistopheles': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Wed & Fri.