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

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.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Marketing & Commnunications Executive, London

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly successful organisat...

    C# .NET Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript HTML, CSS) Finance

    £60000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Develo...

    MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh-£260/day

    £230 - £260 per day + competitive: Orgtel: MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh...

    Junior Database developer (SQL, T-SQL, Excel, SSRS, Crystal rep

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + bonus+benefits+package: Harrington Starr: Junior D...

    Day In a Page

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment