MUSIC : A big week for the Domingo fan club

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Running an opera house is like juggling while standing on one leg at the edge of a precipice. When a ball drops, you don't look down; and Covent Garden daren't look down at all these days in its efforts to keep everything else afloat. With Placido Domingo's 25th anniversary events this week, the UK premiere of Pfitzner's Palestrina in January, and the ever-nearing trauma of the Royal Opera House closure next summer (which in opera-planning time is the day after yesterday), the selective focus is understandable but not excusable. And if I'd been a member of the paying public I'd have asked for my money back after Tuesday's revival of Turandot proved little more than a walk-through: something this, of all the Garden's current stagings, can't survive.

Andrei Serban's production has been around for 14 years now; and although its Chinese-circus style scores low on glamour, it's a legitimate response to the combination of romance and pantomime in the piece. Its high-energy busyness - all-dancing as well as all-singing - is effective, so long as it gets high-energy input. Which on this occasion it doesn't.

Daniele Gatti seems to be working hard in the pit: he clearly has ideas about the score, and highlights the discordant, spangled details of Puccini's orchestration in ways that are presumably designed to expose a harder, darker edge than you normally hear. But he miscalculates the tempi, which are mostly slow; and when he does try to inject some life into the proceedings, he gets precious little response. The chorus entries are sluggish, the orchestral textures threadbare, the big Ping/Pang/Pong trio a bore - and so, even, is the riddle scene, from "In Questa Reggia" onwards. Sharon Sweet's Turandot comes so veiled in dullness that it prompts fond memories of Gwyneth Jones, whose chainsaw attack was never beautiful but at least conveyed something of the terror of the woman. Ms Sweet needs an excitement pill. As for Giuseppe Giacomini's Calaf, it's a voice that fills the space by force rather than natural projection - and the force took its toll in perilously cracked sounds by the end of Act II. "Nessun Dorma" was touch and go, and went largely without distinction. Only Nucia Focile's Liu made any real impression; and she, we were told, was battling with illness. Angela Gheorghiu takes over her role next week, which might just give the whole thing a lift. It needs it.

Meanwhile, the Garden was busy feting Placido Domingo who was busy showing us his new lives: as a one-night-stand conductor for Tosca on Monday, and a one-off heldentenor slipped into the Walkure from Richard Jones's Ring cycle at the weekend. Domingo's conducting I've seen before and don't, I'm afraid, take seriously. But his new life with Wagner is a different matter. It's a rite of passage when a lyric tenor darkens (ie ages) into helden possibilities, and not every voice comes through. There are demands of weight and sustaining power to be met; and in Domingo's case there's a cultural hurdle to surmount in the approximation of an essentially Latin voice to Teutonic sound. But that said, Domingo has always been the most adventurous of the Three Tenors, with more than 100 roles under his larynx. He recorded Parsifal four years ago with James Levine on DG. And although he had never sung Wagner before in London, his Walkure Siegmund has been heard in Vienna, Milan, Berlin and New York; so British audiences are really only catching up, late, with an established development.

As to whether he can do it, the answer is a relieved and slightly surprised "Yes". There were times when the tone came in under weight, but I've rarely heard so purely and cleanly lyrical a Siegmund, or one so conscientious in the delivery of detail. You could tell he wasn't German, but so what? It felt bizarrely youthful, fresh and lithe. He even looked young, moving with agility and grace, and losing me a private bet by making his first entrance exactly as the (revised) production asks - dragged up out of the flames of Hunding's hearth. For someone who made his Royal Opera debut 25 years ago (as Cavaradossi to a Gwyneth Jones Tosca under Edward Downes) he isn't doing badly.

I should add that the rest of the cast were superb - mostly as seen before (Deborah Polaski, John Tomlinson, Jane Henschel) but with the American soprano Karen Huffstodt debuting as Sieglinde. Huffstodt made a meal of her opening mime (heaven knows what she was doing - trying to dry her hair while being gnawed by soldier ants, it seemed), but relaxed into a profound and touching portrayal of Woman in Need. Simone Young conducted, without the magisterial authority of Haitink but perfectly well. And as the Domingo Fan Club audience hadn't seen Richard Jones's production before, they booed it vigorously.

It was an uncommonly good-natured audience that waited for an hour in the Union Chapel, Islington, last weekend while the performers tried to turn the organ on. The occasion was the final concert in the Visual and Dramatic Festival of Music, run there with endearing spirit and enterprise by Robert Hollingworth, who otherwise conducts the choir I Fagiolini and tells jokes. And that's what he did as the hour passed, having thanked everyone imaginable for their contributions to the festival and supplied a ball-by-ball commentary on efforts to locate organ builders, fuse-wire, men with torches, God, and everything bar air-sea rescue.

It was the kind of ad hoc virtuosity for which radio announcers get MBEs, and far more Visually Dramatic (not to say interesting) than what happened when the organ finally started. What happened was the premiere of a musical nativity play, To Mary a Son, which retold the story of Bethlehem in late- 20th-century terms. In other words, it read like an episode of Casualty: homeless couple, unplanned pregnancy, no room at the maternity ward ... you get the drift.

The composer was Roderick Williams, a young baritone who appeared in his own piece (as Joseph), and I'm sure it was all written in absolute sincerity. But it was also absolutely dire: inconsequential, slow, grotesque with misplaced irony, and set to a feeble melange of half-hearted serialism, borrowings from Britten, period parody and cute bits for the kiddies. It called for large forces, and the irony is that they included good young performers like Roderick Williams himself, the period band Concordia, and a superlatively accomplished countertenor called William Purefoy who were wasted on this. As was the whole resource of the festival, which is essentially a good idea and deserving of support in its willingness to take on the challenge of a big new work. It just needs to take care that the work is worth doing.

`Turandot': Royal Opera House, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Mon, Thurs & Sat.