Music: I'd get a divorce if I was Figaro

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Indy Lifestyle Online
OPERA PLANNING is a long-term business: diaries get filled three years ahead and if you want Pavarotti this side of Armageddon, forget it. So when the handout for a new production merely weeks off reads "director: TBA", something is wrong. And "wrong" is probably an understatement for the Royal Opera's new Nozze di Figaro, which opened this week but was still TBA-ing its director (and for that matter its conductor) in November.

The conductor problem was misfortune: Charles Mackerras pulled out on the grounds of poor health. The director problem was another matter: lack of funds, chaotic management, the standard ROH scenario. And the combined result is desperate. A dead show with a dreary cast.

In fairness, Patrick Young, the staff director pulled in at the eleventh hour to try and make it happen, has a few ideas which in more favourable circumstances might have come to something. The designs - spare, black- and-white - vaguely suggest that the Almavivas have just moved home, and that Figaro and Susanna aren't the only members of the household marking out their territory. There's a community at work here, trying space for size and testing boundaries.

But whatever the potential, it's unrealised. A stronger cast might have seized some personal initiative and filled the emptiness of the staging, but this one - the first of two sharing the run - just goes routinely through its business. Nuccia Focile's Susanna comes closest to a real performance, nicely sung and with the makings of some character. But Neal Davies is a limited Figaro, Gillian Webster a Countess without class, Dagmar Peckov a Cherubino without charm, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (the star name on the bill) a stone-dead pouting presence of a Count - singing with ease and style, but nothing you'd be likely to mistake for animation.

With the great comic scenes barely raising a smile and sluggish tempi (especially in the recits) from the substitute conductor Steven Sloane, the only real pleasure in this Figaro comes in Act IV, when the moment for Marcellina's and Basilio's optional arias arrives ... and passes by. Spared. Perhaps the second cast (which looks more promising) will raise the stakes. They couldn't lower them.

The stakes in a piece like Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd are inevitably raised when it's taken on by an opera company. You get a bigger chorus, more musicians in the pit, and plusher sound - as suits a musical so "operatic" that it plays in lyric houses everywhere. But that said, Sweeney also needs a kind of Broadway chutzpah that doesn't come easy to conservatoire- trained singers. And it's only intermittently apparent in Opera North's new production. The chorus (collectively magnificent) don't seize the opportunities Sondheim gives them to step forward, and some of the principals could do with more projection too. Especially Karl Daymond, who meets the visual requirements of a young romantic lead by looking like something drawn by Tom of Finland, but is vocally too dark and heavy.

Steven Paige's Sweeney, though, is wonderful - smaller in scale than Dennis Quilley's definitive performances in the past, but with the wiry, skin-and-bone determination of a true obsessive. There's a surprisingly high-profile Lucy in Gillian Kirkpatrick. And Opera North has played safe in giving Mrs Lovett to a "West End" singer, Beverley Klein, who plays the role like Hylda Baker playing Barbara Windsor.

David McVicar's production does nothing very remarkable beyond including the judge's S&M scene usually omitted on grounds of taste - as though taste had any function in a piece that mixes gags with gore. But then there's not much room for new manoeuvres in a piece in which the score dictates the action so precisely. All one asks is that the genius of the writing comes through, boldly and clearly. And "genius" is not too strong a word for Sweeney. The text dazzles. The music is irresistible. And there is no more brilliantly manipulative moment in all music-theatre than the one when Sweeney puts his razor to the judge's throat ... and breaks into the wistful duet "Pretty Women". It's the G-spot of the score. And from the squeals of pleasure it provoked on Wednesday, it went down particularly well with the group booking of northern circuit judges in the dress circle.

If "genius" is the word for Sondheim, is "great" the word for Martinu? The BBC obviously thinks so, and made a point of it on the programme cover for their Martinu Festival last weekend at the Barbican, promising "music, talks and films about the great Czech composer".

But was Martinu great? He was certainly prolific, with a catalogue of some 400 published works (six symphonies, 11 solo-instrument concertos, 14 operas), and there are certainly some worthwhile scores among them. It would be a poor thing if there weren't. But whether there are enough worthwhile scores, and how deep their values penetrate beyond surface attraction, are open questions. For myself, I can only say that the more Martinu I hear, the less substantial it seems. And in the course of last weekend I heard an awful lot.

He had, I think, a dangerous facility. He wrote too easily, too un-self- critically, his ear inclined to semi-mechanistic processes. His life, by contrast, wasn't easy. It was mostly spent in exile, either voluntary or forced, and the emotional content of his music was largely a long-distance response to the events in Czechoslovakia that kept him away: German occupation followed by Communist takeover.

But although the events were momentous, the response was pale: a show of solemn indignation settling into bland, Czech National nostalgia. You may like it, but you can't believe it. And personally I find it hard to believe anything about Martinu, least of all the "distinctive voice" enthusiasts claim to hear in his work. All I hear is Stravinsky, Bartk and (in the scores written while he was in America) Aaron Copland without the tunes.

But this isn't to say I had a foul time at the Barbican. The brisk immersion- therapy these minifests provide is always well- presented and well-documented (the programme-books are collectors' items). And I can't think of a better way to confront the range of a composer's work and make your own judgement of it. The range here was determined by the Czech conductor Jir Belohlvek, who was in artistic charge of the weekend and responsible for most of the performances, directing the BBCSO. As a matter of policy he chose the best works from Martinu's catalogue (Memorial to Lidice, Field Mass, Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Double Concerto). And there were some superb readings among them, beautifully crafted and alive with energy. The soloists included Boris Berezovsky, sweeping through the 3rd Piano Concerto with disarming fluency. And there was radiant singing from Susan Chilcott and Alwyn Mellor in the highlight of the whole weekend: a concert reading of the opera The Greek Passion. Another of Martinu's not-quite-believable scores, with a finale that assumes a greater emotional commitment to the central character than any of the previous music justifies, the Passion none the less has an inviting, richly coloured beauty. Better still, it has a Janacek-like terseness in its narrative. Greek Passion finishes while you're still happy to hear more: a virtue Martinu took half a lifetime to discover.

'Figaro': Shaftesbury, WC2 (0171 304 4000), to Fri. 'Sweeney': Leeds Grand (0113 222 6222), Wed & Fri.