Music: A good week for domestic mayhem

Events behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House make Strauss's bloodsoaked drama suddenly seem a little tame

When blood oozed through the set of the Royal Opera's Elektra, I can't have been the only member of the audience to wonder whose it was. Life at the Garden can be gory off- as well as on-stage; and Tuesday brought news of a major casualty in Genista McIntosh, whose sudden departure as the ROH Chief Executive is as dramatic as it is mysterious. Ill-health, said the official statement; but as Stephen Fay's interview with Ms McIntosh in today's Sunday Review will tell you, she seemed perfectly all right the week before last. No one I've spoken to has been able to confirm the nature of her illness: only that she cleared her desk on Tuesday and won't be coming back. A successor, Mary Allen from the Arts Council, has been hastily appointed, but won't take up the reigns until September - leaving Covent Garden without leadership as it faces the most testing challenge of its modern history, and joins the homeless. If I were Nicholas Payne or Anthony Dowell, the shoulders forced to bear this added burden, I'd be checking out the price of hemlock.

By comparison, the domestic mayhem of Elektra seems tame; and Gotz Friedrich's revived production with its trusty tunnel-punctured-by-a-fallen-missile set doesn't project the violence of the piece as forcefully as I remember last time round. Nor does Christian Thielemann's conducting. It's incisive, strong, in many ways attractive, but not totally secure; and in the pursuit of clarity he seems to direct his focus toward the upper-register instruments, sacrificing the sheer weight of sound that Strauss's massive orchestration assumes. It means we hear more voices and more detail, which is admirable. But we also want to thrill to the cataclysmic crash of the Agamemnon chords at the beginning, and relish the dissonances of congealed orchestral colours. Here we didn't quite get either. It was good conducting, but too healthy for the piece: too keen on light and air for music which is dark and stifling.

In fairness to Thielemann, though, there is a lyricism in Elektra which he handles eloquently. One tends to forget that this is women's opera, dominated in true Straussian style by three contrasted female voices; and although Elektra is a tour de force she has her gentler moments, which Deborah Polaski delivers in a wonderfully rounded way with discernible pitch as well as searing power. There's no squall in her singing; the notes are true and firm; there are few voices around now who could tackle this awesome role so effectively.

For similar reasons, there are few Klytemnestras so exciting as Felicity Palmer. And the ultimate trump card in this striking cast is Karita Mattila, singing her first Strauss at the Garden and doing it beautifully. Her Chrysothemis is clearly as mad as everyone else in this House of Atreus: a desperate spinster caught somewhere between childhood and decay, berating her fate with hopeless impotence but glorious vocal style. This latest triumph proves she's not a five-day wonder. She has served a long apprenticeship and here is the reward: magnificent, secure, and singularly lovely.

There's a singular voice, too, in the ENO's revived La Traviata. An underwhelming show - not one of Jonathan Miller's best - on big, empty sets with little to catch the eye, the only impression it left last time round was of Rosa Mannion in the title role, looking awkward in her Act I trouser-suit but singing radiantly. Without her, I thought, this production would be nothing. But then I'd never heard the American soprano Susan Patterson, and her assumption of the role is stunning. With a full, capacious sound, attractive and accomplished, she projects superbly and commands the stage. The trousers are dispensed with; she seems perfectly at ease. And I only wish she had a stronger Alfredo than Julian Gavin, a Company principal of obvious promise, but who is not quite ready to sustain the roles ENO and others are rushing to give him. I understand their keenness: good young lyric tenors are rarer than Westminster Tories, and when you find one you seize it. But in Gavin's case I'd recommend patience.

Depression may seem like the post-Freudian prerogative of the 20th century, but it flourished in the 16th and 17th under another name - melancholy - and invaded the sensibilities of British composers to a peculiar degree. Lachrimae, Laments, Cryes and Misereres were the commonplace of artists attracted by the paradox of music being born from pain but also healing it. The "pleasing melancholy" of music and its remedial hope for "such as are discontent" merited a significant entry in Robert Burton's 1621 Anatomy of the subject. And last Monday, the period performance group Concordia - a latterday consort of treble, tenor and bass viols - gave an evocative programme of English Renaissance melancholy at the Purcell Room. Works by Tye, Weelkes, Lawes and more obscure names wept a steady stream of tears. And in the way that period bands these days like to keep a foothold in the present, the tears were linked by a specially-commissioned sequence of Glyn Maxwell poems which steered a narrative of sorts through all this ancient sadness: Audenesque in their insistent rhythms and seductive half-coherence. Maxwell read the verse himself; and its implicit musicality, combined with the delicious pathos of the viols, made one of the most fascinating concerts I've experienced in ages. Concordia are touring the programme and have also produced a CD of it for the Metronome label. Treat yourself to some exquisite gloom.

Finally, news from the South. Casual visitors to a holiday camp on the Isle of Wight last weekend would have been surprised to find oboists from the length and breadth of Europe - some of them extremely eminent - gathered in conspiratorial huddles by the caravan enclosure to swap tips on reed- binding. I was intrigued to learn that the hot alternatives are fish- scales vs cling-film (ie, smelly vs tacky) and that such details are life and death to the double-reed community, who were here in force for the Isle of Wight International Oboe Competition.

Without the glamour of the human voice, the piano or the violin, oboes have never attracted much competition activity or sustained many big-name soloists. But from Leon Goossens through to Nicholas Daniel, there has been a strong 20th-century British school of playing, and one of its grander exponents, Evelyn Rothwell (aka Lady Barbarolli), was instrumental in setting up the IOW venture four years ago. It's small in scale but broad in outreach, organised with an admirable mixture of imagination and practicality that tests the competitors in ensemble-playing (with a string quartet) as well as in recital and concertos (with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta). The finals feature a specially commissioned concerto - this year a piece by Andrew Toovey that took the solo oboe on a world tour of its folk and ethnic roots. And the competition itself was accompanied by a package of masterclasses and concerts that included a magnificent account of Strauss's Oboe Concerto by Nicholas Daniel: the unchallengeable highlight of the whole weekend.

As for the finalists, all three were British (a touch embarrassing since tastes in oboe-sound are a matter of deep territorial division). Personally I'd have given the laurels to Alun Darbyshire for sheer personality. In the event, no first prize was awarded, and the second went to Victoria Brawn, whose playing struck me as elegant but cool. Fish-scaled or clingfilmed? I forgot to ask.

`Elektra' continues Mon & Thurs, 0171 304 4000. `La Traviata' continues Tues & Fri, 0171 632 8300.

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