The Critics: Music
Cherubini's Medea is a rare and remarkable piece with a heroine - if you can call murdering your children heroic - who ranks among the most magnificent of all operatic abbandonatas. After long neglect the role was restored to the stage by Maria Callas in the Fifties, and the towering heights she scaled with it - preserved in several recordings and the memories of Crush Bar queens over a certain age - established an exacting precedent which few British singers have dared follow. Rosalind Plowright sang it in the Eighties at Buxton and Covent Garden. But it has also been a hidden role of Josephine Barstow, who did it in Boston and included the final scene on an old Decca disc but then put it aside until last week, when she opened a new production at Opera North.

Vocally, it must be said, we're getting Barstow's Medea 10 years too late. The sound is thin and fraying at the edges, with a neurotic rasp closer to Donna Elvira blustering in from Burgos than to the mighty, murderous witch-princess of Colchis. But heaven knows, Barstow is still a wonderfully dramatic animal who delivers her goods with absolute commitment. Leeds is lucky to have her; and lucky too in its director, Phyllida Lloyd, whose production eschews ancient Greece and instead relates the opera to when it was written: the tail-end of the French Revolution. Cherubini was an Italian, but he lived in Paris through the Old Regime, the Terror and the new Napoleonic Empire - a survivor - and the head-on conflict of one world running into the next is what Lloyd obviously finds most interesting about his opera. Medea becomes a paradigm of passionate barbarism: a relic of the past bursting in on a primly self-contained, slightly effete world of 18th-century reason whose members parade up and down a spiral staircase (nicely designed by Ian MacNeil), striking poses and looking purposeful without going anywhere. It's a neat and effective concept, even if it doesn't quite pack the punch the piece demands.

Musically, Medea presents a choice of versions. The score stands on the cusp between classicism and romanticism - it was a powerful influence on Beethoven's Fidelio - and like so many operas of its period it was originally a mixture of speech and song: what the French called opera comique, without any necessary implication of mirth. Nothing could be less mirthful than Medea. But in the mid-19th century the dialogue was converted into sung recitative, which made the running time inordinately long. When Callas did it, the recits were sung (in Italian) and the rest of the score massively cut to bring the whole thing down to manageable proportions: an ironic solution. At Opera North they return, more or less, to Cherubini's intentions with spoken dialogue and only marginal cuts - all of which gives the piece a clean, impactful conciseness and is certainly the best option. But it's a rare singer who can bring off speech on stage, and Opera North's cast sound uncomfortable throughout the dialogue - as though desperate for the music to come back and swallow their embarrassment.

They'd be better off in Harrison Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus, where a massive orchestral machinery swallows everything - and did so with electrifying force in a one-off staging at the Festival Hall last weekend. It launched a South Bank retrospective which, over the next few weeks, will encompass Birtwistle's major concert scores of recent years and premiere some new ones. But the title of the series, Secret Theatres (taken from a 1984 ensemble piece for the London Sinfonietta), makes the point that all the composer's music either overtly or implicitly carries some kind of dramatic agenda - not in the West End sense of linear narrative but in the liturgical sense of codified moves which, although initially arbitrary, settle into coherence and purpose. The moves in Birtwistle are based on repetition with variation, much like music throughout history. But the way the moves are plotted is distinctive, fascinating and obsessive: one is tempted to say that Birtwistle makes a fetish of formal procedures - even in his operas, which are less obviously music about stories than stories about music.

The Mask of Orpheus is a prime example. Premiered at ENO in 1984 (with no complete staging since) it out-Wozzecks Wozzeck in its appropriation of theatre for experiments in form. The familiar Orpheus myth is not so much told as circumnavigated, with sections of the story pored over, rehearsed, delivered (as it were) with footnotes on alternative interpretations - and all because Birtwistle is using the myth to illustrate and enlarge on purely formal ideas in the score. Enlarge is, indeed, the word here, because the result is a great, grinding Gesamtkunstwerk of song, dance, spectacle and mime. To call it opera understates its claims - and, I think, misreads its intentions, because this is not a score where the voice rules. The Festival Hall staging - simply but brilliantly directed by Stephen Langridge and designed by Alison Chitty - strikes me as the perfect way to do it: with all the participants sharing the platform, but the singers separated from the action (largely entrusted to the mimes, dancers and actors) and the orchestra in the middle claiming the ultimate focus.

The orchestra here was the BBC SO under Andrew Davis, and it played this score of mind-breaking complexity with virtuosic stamina that few bands in the world could match. But, above all, their performance demonstrated two things. One is that, for all its might and electro-acoustic overlays, the density of Birtwistle's scoring isn't so relentless as we'd all remembered: there are stretches of transparent lyricism where the music genuinely "sings". The other is that in Orpheus Birtwistle has created a complete world, self-determined, unmistakable, and answerable to no laws but its own. In that respect he shares the greatness of the great composers.

`Medea': Leeds Grand, 0113 245 9351, Mon & Wed. `Secret Theatres': South Bank, SE1, 0171 928 8800, to 4 May.

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