SOCIETY GIVES artists the right to fail because it expects them to dare, but no one has the right to fail so badly and for so little dared as the ENO with the execrable rubbish it passed off this week as The Italian Girl in Algiers. Directed - if you can call it that - by Howard Davies, it dies within minutes of the overture and limps on for another two and a half hours of sheer inconsequentiality: miserably conducted, pitifully designed, half-heartedly performed and a grim advertisement for ENO at a time when its development proposals are making such huge demands of the hearts, minds and wallets of the British public.

The kindest thing I can say is that it's perhaps a consequence of taking Rossini's categorisation of his own, very early score at face value. Rossini called it a Dramma Giocosa like Mozart's Don Giovanni, implying some element of seriousness alongside the jokes. But even allowing for the pathos of Lindoro's opening cavatina or the erotic potential of Isabella's "Per lui che adoro", the piece is pure farce: a confection spun from air, that needs brilliance, wit and vocal virtuosity. Not the dullness of Howard Davies, whose idea of fun never gets beyond forcing his cast into embarrassed dances while the couple of Islamic cloister-modules that serve as a set are shunted round in pointless reconfigurations and the conductor, Valentin Reymond, beats away, untouched by rhythm, energy or pace.

In fairness, there's some charming singing from Mary Hegarty; Alan Opie and Christopher Booth- Jones are reliable as always; and it's good to see Della Jones, who sings the title role, back at the Coliseum. Some of my happiest memories are of her ENO Rossini heroines, shooting fiery bursts of low-flying fioritura across the front stalls and carrying the diction flawlessly to the back of the balcony. But even she doesn't shine in these sorry circumstances.

Incidentally, memories of Della Jones's diction give the lie to one of the many spurious reasons ENO is advancing for its relocation plans: namely that the current auditorium is too big for singers. To abandon the best theatre-site in Britain on grounds like that is madness; but then lunacy has been the hallmark of this whole affair, starting with the pounds 1.4m paid to accountants KPMG to produce the "feasibility study" which recommends the move. I don't know how KPMG justifies its fee, but I know that the KPMG researcher I agreed to brief (for no fee at all) appeared to have zero understanding of the subject and spent two hours asking me risibly basic questions. If this was typical of the way the "study" was compiled, it hardly commends its conclusions.

If John Cage wasn't a great composer (discuss), he was at least a cause of greatness in others, including the late Witold Lutoslawski, who was the subject of a BBC festival last weekend at the Barbican called Breaking Chains. A definitive retrospective, its crash-course of orchestral concerts, chamber recitals, talks and films offered an admirably balanced portrait of a composer who kept his distance from the mainstream avant-garde but knew it, understood it, and made use of it in a lifelong quest for form.

Form was in fact the story of the weekend: a composer's search for structures that would carry and contain his thinking. And it was fascinating to discover the degree of self-awareness with which Lutoslawski paced his own progress, writing (as he said) not necessarily the music he wanted, but the music he felt able to produce - until time, a developing technique and delayed encounters (above all with Cage) allowed him to move on.

The delays in Lutoslawski's life were as critical as the encounters themselves. Born in Warsaw in 1913, he was a contemporary of Britten's; but his development was slower, arrested by the war and then by Soviet restrictions on Polish access to the artistic life of the West. By the time he caught up with Darmstadt and the great debates of European music in the Fifties, the issues were largely settled - and not to his liking. Darmstadt stood for control, Lutoslawski for flexibility; and despite experiments with serialism, his post-war work came largely in a Bartokian folk language that he considered a temporary diversion. But it had at least one lasting result, in the Concerto for Orchestra, whose vital, listener-friendly rhythmic brilliance makes it to this day his calling-card. Andrew Davis and the BBCSO played it at the Barbican; and if the rhythms weren't as brilliant as they might have been (it came at the end of a particularly demanding programme), it was still one of the weekend's highlights.

But to hear this familiar piece in the context of a great concentration of Lutoslawski was to realise how unrepresentative its bold, assertive, colours are. His imagination was essentially Ravellian: all French refinement and often with French titles to the scores - like Jeux Venitiens, which the London Sinfonietta played on Sunday. This was the piece in which he made his first big structural discovery: the idea of "chance" (borrowed from Cage), of allowing performers to reorganise elements of a score as they think fit. For Cage, chance was a route to happy anarchy. For Lutoslawski it was more particular: a freedom within limits which are carefully policed, either by the conductor's baton or by the music itself. In the one-off String Quartet of 1964, which the Brindisi Quartet played with authoritative strength on Saturday, the policing comes in aggressive unison octaves that marshal the ad-libbing instruments back into order like the bark of a sergeant-major.

Beside chance procedures, though, the idee fixe of Lutoslawski's last years was a method of sustaining musical continuity through overlapping sequences that run in parallel, but stop and start at different times. He called it chain-structure: hence the title of the Barbican festival, and hence the remarkable string of scores, Chain I, II and III, which stand proud among his later work and were all played during the weekend, very effectively. Chain II, a sort of violin concerto delivered here with stunningly clear-headed virtuosity by the young German violinist Antje Weithaas, was probably the most impressive thing the weekend had to offer.

But it's invidious to select from so desirable a box of delights, and Breaking Chains was nothing less: the BBC at its old Reithian best, informing through sheer pleasure. Lutoslawski's ultimate achievement was to have perfected a synthesis of intellect and emotion whose mindful beauty could stand against serialism as a credible alternative. For that, at least, we owe him something.

'Italian Girl': Coliseum, WC1 (0171 632 8300), continues Tues & Thurs.