Menotti: profit without honour

Gian Carlo Menotti is a composer who leads the double life of the successfully out-of-favour. On my desk is a press release telling me that "somewhere in the world, virtually every day of the year" someone stages a Menotti opera; and it's very likely true. There are 22 Menotti operas to choose from and they include the deathless Amahl and the Night Visitors, which is to the American Christmas what Dickens, Carols from King's and Morecambe & Wise are to ours.

But the critical establishment has frozen him out, especially in Britain where he happens to live - in a stately mansion near Edinburgh - and where he suffers a fate similar to other musical immigrants (Roberto Gerhard, Andrez Panufnik, Bertold Goldschmidt ...) who have found residence here a ticket to oblivion. His work is ignored by British orchestras and opera houses; Edinburgh makes no claim on him as local talent; and we hear so little of him it would be reasonable to think he had retired.

But Menotti has simply abandoned the fight for a British platform and directed his energies to projects abroad, like the Spoleto Festival, which he founded in 1958 and where you'll probably find him today - his 85th birthday - being carried through the streets. For Spoleto ranks among the most truly festive festivals I've ever known: buzzing with life and overwhelming a small Umbrian hill-town so absurdly charming that every courtyard and piazza could stand service as an old-time Verdi stage-set. The per- formances happen in handsome churches and enchanting toybox theatres; and the performers are mostly young Americans, imported to form a Fes- tival Orchestra and Chorus, to sing the Festival operas, and to play the Concerti a Mezzogiorno that run every day in Spoleto's exquisite 18th-century Teatro Melisso. In many ways the Mezzogiorno concerts are the highlights of Spoleto. You can barely breathe - the auditorium is so full, the heat so stifling - but the atmosphere is charged with energy and the past week has seen some remarkable music-making from artists like the Borromeo Quartet, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Robert White, and a young violinist, Corey Cerovsek, of such entrancing refinement that it can't be long before he makes a major career-break in Britain.

At night, that same tiny Teatro Melisso has been housing a festival production of Semele, sung in English (well, maybe American) and staged with unmitigated charm in the baroque manner of painted drops and flying chariots. The scale is perfect, the singing delightful; and it takes the experience of Handelian opera/ oratorio on a 30ft stage to realise how compellingly direct such things can be.

On a larger scale, but still fairly small, Spoleto is running Eugene Onegin in a production by Menotti himself - for decades he has been directing as well as writing operas - and it's a traditionalist's delight: aglow with sunnily veristic picture-book sets and a formidable Russian Tatyana who writes her letter like a protest to the Inland Revenue but has all the notes secure.

But central to Spoleto this year are Menotti's own works, including two big scores from the composer's golden period - the 1940s ballet Sebastian and the early Sixties cantata The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi - which effectively define the issues that separate his disciples and detractors. Brindisi is the kind of piece Britten might have tackled, telling the story of a disastrous medieval children's crusade through the guilty recollections of the bishop who sanctioned it. Like so much of Menotti's work the writing leans toward dramatic spectacle; and played here in the candle-lit darkness of Spoleto Cathedral (with a heart-stopping moment when the great west doors opened and the children's chorus, shrouded in a spotlit cloud of stage-smoke, shuffled in) it made a gut-directed impact, dynamically conducted, by a Michael Tilson Thomas lookalike called Steven Mercurio. But the strengths of the piece are ultimately qualified by a feeling that it never quite fulfils its promise: substance is distracted by effect, brilliance hijacked by sentiment. And the feeling persists in Sebastian, a sub-Stravinskyan neoclassical fantasy which charms but doesn't quite convince the ear. Compound these problems with Menotti's arch-conservatism, rooted in a firm tonality that barely acknowledges pre-serial Schoenberg let alone post-, and you begin to understand why Menotti has been airbrushed out of the group portraiture of modern music.

But that's our loss as much as his. Pieces like Sebastian and Brindisi fall short of genius but are enjoyable, attractive, written with a fecund gift for melody and a command of orchestral colour that some of today's teeth-clenching avant-gardists could learn from. Above all, the music is humane: it tempers technique with compassion and a generosity of spirit that commands respect.

When Menotti dies, no doubt he'll get it. There'll be reassessments, retrospectives, I can see it all. But in the meantime, there's a new Menotti biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz due this autumn. Maybe that will stir some minds towards the view that it would be nice to rediscover him on his adopted home ground while he's still here to know about it.

I'm never sure what constituted Delius's home ground - Bradford? Leipzig? Grez-sur-Loing? - but hearing the great pagan ritual of his Mass of Life ricochet around St Paul's Cathedral as part of the City of London Festival confirmed that his creativity looked way beyond the stile gate of English Pastoralism, towards an epic Wagnerian landscape that embraces the banal, bombastic and sublime. It was certainly a sublime performance from Richard Hickox with the Bournemouth Symphony & Chorus and magnificent soloists: the first I've ever caught live - it's a rare piece - and one I won't forget.

Benjamin Britten's loyalty to his home ground was clear enough, but he had a strange way of showing it. Peter Grimes gives an unendearing picture of small-town Suffolk life, only half- redeemed by its successor Albert Herring which effectively revisits the same locale and characters, reduced to comedy like bent reflections in a fairground mirror. In the new Herring at Garsington (director Stephen Unwin) they seem to have picked up a few other alter-images along the way, because the piece plays like a tribute to the stars of English classic comedy. Florence Pike (upgraded from prim servant to forbidding lady companion by Mary King) becomes a singing Maggie Smith, Miss Wordsworth (Lynne Davies) an homage a Julie Walters, the Mayor (meticulously acted, if sung in a persistent bellow, by Nigel Douglas) a resurrected Terry- Thomas, and so on. It works beautifully: the bathetic genius of Eric Crozier's faux-banal rhymes ("Sorry Miss Pike/ Punctured me bike") is perfectly realised; the 1940s costumes are a riot of extra-thick stockings and sensible shoes; and Richard Halton makes a peerless genial spiv as Sid, whose duets with Nancy are the best music in the score and the nearest Britten ever got to a convincing portrayal of heterosexual love. The pity is that Stephen Barlow's conducting doesn't give it enough spice or space; nor does he inspire the 13-piece orchestra to the feats of virtuosity demanded by such exposed writing. Steuart Bedford, the doyen of Britten conductors, would have been a better choice for the job, especially as he is about to record a new Herring for Collins Classics and is already at Garsington, conducting Idomeneo. But more of that next week.

City of London Festival (0171 638 8891) and Garsington (01865 361636) continue to Sun 14 Jul.

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