Conductor Valery Gergiev has turned a chaotic schedule into gold dust, flattering audiences by pulling the rabbit out of the hat night after night, even when both rabbit and hat are still plastered with airline security stickers and in need of a serious brushing.
His approach works well enough in the concert hall, where spontaneity is at a premium. But in the opera house you need subtlety and caution, especially when the score is as opulent and complex as that of Szymanovski's psychosexual opéra à clef, King Roger.
A neurotic compote of Nietzsche, Euripides, symbolism, shimmering Orientalist melodies and homoerotic hootchie-kootchie, King Roger's fame is based on how rarely it is heard. It ends not with a bang – though there are plenty of these in Act II – but a lyrical whimper, as the king, who is both attracted and repelled by orgiastic hedonism, expires in a haze of Apollan self-abnegation. But who could blame him when all that Dionysus has to offer in terms of erotic adventure is a Take That dance routine?
Film-maker Mariusz Trelinski's Mariinsky Opera production transports King Roger from 12th-century Sicily to contemporary Eastern Europe, with Roger (Andrzej Dobber) and his queen Roxana (Elzbieta Szmytka) clad in black Versace, and the peroxide blonde Dionysus (Pavlo Tolstoy) sporting the sort of pyjamas Gary Barlow might wear on a quiet evening in.
Act I is set in a concrete cathedral, Act II in a glass-walled penthouse and Act III in a hospital ward. That psychology took second place to noise in the Edinburgh Festival performance was more Gergiev's fault than Trelinski's, but I soon ceased to care whether Roger would be as enthusiastic a swinger as his wife.
Amid the orchestral orgasms, saucy splashing of vin blanc on queenly pudendas, dry ice and fey scarf-twiddling of Edrisi (Sergey Semishur), Dobber and Szmytka looked like a working-class couple who had made their millions and found they have nothing left to talk about. Still, there was some magnificent singing to be heard over the muezzin-like oboes, angst-ridden strings and shuddering tam-tam. Dobber's sturdy, candid baritone cut through all but the most cloying orchestral writing, as did Szymtka's half-girlish, half-matronly soprano and Tolstoy's keening tenor, and the Mariinsky chorus were superb.
The mid-20th-century notion that there is a natural affinity between artists who specialise in early music and those who specialise in contemporary music has proved remarkably persistent – the implication being that neither can produce a sound good enough for core repertoire and that both play from the head. Of course, the best specialists in both fields produce a wonderful, emotionally charged sound, not that anyone listening to contemporary music maven Irvine Arditti's recital with baroque violinist Rüdiger Lotter and the buttoned-up continuo players of Lyriarte would believe me. That Berio's epigrammatic duets Béla (Bartók), Maurice (Fleuret) and Jeanne (Panni) were the only successful items of the first half was testament to Lotter's stylistic versatility. In Biber's Partia No 6, Arditti's abrasive, vinegary tone and rigid bowing were entirely at odds with Lotter's swift, light bowing and fluid decorations.
A similar lack of cohesion hung over the first Queen's Hall concert by the Soloists of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Hummel's lovely Piano Quintet in E flat minor was a good three hours of rehearsal away from being ready for the public, and only when Jeno Jando was joined by Violetta Eckhardt, Gabor Sipos, Cecilia Bodolai and Rita Sovany for Bartok's early, Brahms-inspired Piano Quintet did that bright, searing Budapest sound ring out as it had the night before in the Festival Orchestra's thrilling performance with Ivan Fischer.
Fischer's exploration of Hungarian gypsy music as translated for the concert hall by Brahms and Liszt – then translated again by the homesick and depressed Schoenberg in his bizarre orchestral arrangement of Brahms's first Piano Quartet – began with a mordant improvisation in the 19th-century verbunkos style from violinist Jozsef Lendvay Senior and cimbalom player Oszkar Okros and closed with an authentic cat's cradle of wild quartertones. Looping from the traditional source to the orchestral score and back again, this was a fascinating, bravura programme.
Lendvay's classically-trained son, Joszef Junior played Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen with a tone and technique beyond any I have heard and joined his father in Fischer's arrangement of Brahms's Hungarian Dance No 11. In an age when Europe's orchestras are sounding increasingly homogenous, Budapest's incisive, heady timbre is unique.