Opera: Manfred, Usher Hall <br/> Mazeppa, Edinburgh Festival Theatre

A Russian melodrama to savour
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The Independent Culture

Schumann's incidental music to Byron's Manfred impressed many sensible people in its day. Unfortunately, the poet's febrile Romanticism now seems merely foolish. Most of the text is spoken rather than sung, which meant that the excellent soloists in this performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were wasted, singing a few lines and then lapsing into schoolroom German. Even the Edinburgh Festival Chorus had only a few bars.

The part of Manfred was taken by an actor, Mark Waschke, who missed the mark completely by going for some sort of modern realism the text could not sustain. Nevertheless, the music is varied and lovingly composed. Someone should compile an orchestral suite, for without the tedious drama there is much of real quality. Manfred calls up the Witch of the Alps to fairy sounds from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream; as the hero addresses a vision of his dead beloved, Schumann's warm string harmonies recall, perhaps, the Second Symphony; there are echoes of Weber's Oberon, and even a foretaste of the cor anglais solo from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

Ilan Volkov directed the orchestra with his usual flair, but the most remarkable performance was by the baritone Neal Davies. He brought the right portentous ring to spoken parts and even sang a bit. But the work was irredeemable.

It was another story with Tchaikovsky's opera Mazeppa, presented by the Opéra National de Lyon at the Festival Theatre. Peter Stein, whose production of Troilus and Cressida is a feature of this year's Edinburgh Festival, revived the old Russian melodrama style, with picture-book costumes, a new set for almost every scene, and off-the-peg acting that mainly consisted of stamping and gesturing.

Stein was lucky in having a luxury cast, headed by Wojtek Drabowicz, a bass with great authority and power. The outstanding Anna Samuil sang the main female part of Maria with a superbly focused voice, bringing a fine presence. Another excellent bass, Anatoli Kotscherga, abandoned caution in the part of Maria's father Kotchoubey, throwing his voice away in anger, despair and misery. Marianna Tarasova was convincing as Maria's mother; as the young Andrey, the tenor Mikhail Agafonov began well but faded and drifted out of tune.

Much of the honour should go to the conductor Kirill Petrenko. From the opening snarls of double-basses in the prelude, the splendid Lyon orchestra achieved enormous impetus. This was a star-quality show, a gust of blood and thunder from the past.

Last performance of Mazeppa tonight (0131-473 2000)