MUSIC: It ain't over till the fat man's hanky song

THE bottom-line demand of Turandot is for two acts of romantic, oriental schmaltz to keep the audience happy until "Nessun Dorma" - but Christopher Alden's production for English National Opera offers nothing of the sort. Set starkly against lurid, neon-lit designs and corrugated surfaces (with the whole of Act 1 contained by a wall of mug-shots of the princely victims looking like a rent boys' gazetteer), the tone is rigorously anti-romantic; and it culminates in a final scene where Turandot and Calaf not only fail to kiss but end up on different sides of the stage, ignoring each other. It's as though Alden refuses to accept the possibility of love between these characters; as though the riddles, challenges and conquests are nothing more than a self-proving game of Russian roulette where the most you can expect is survival. In short, this is no Turandot for traditionalists - or for football fans in innocent pursuit of what the fat man's hanky song is all about.

But that said, it's a terrific show, with all the below-the-belt impact by which this opera, not the subtlest in the repertory, stands or falls. And, for once, what Alden does on stage to challenge the accepted "tinta" of the piece is justified. Turandot, after all, is not verismo, not Boheme with blood on the carpet, but tragi-comic fable: a hybrid concoction of perfumed chinoiserie and knockabout Italian pantomime. And the fusion of cultures in the design for this production (Maoist conformity, traditional glitz and 1920s Italian chic, with Turandot making her first entrance swathed in furs like an old photo of Claudia Muzio stepping off an ocean liner) capture that extremely well. There is also a nice sense of the Emperor's kingdom subsiding into totalitarian bureaucracy, entirely appropriate to 1920s Italy (when Turandot was premiered).

ENO have wasted their money in commissioning a new English translation, because almost nothing comes across and what little you catch isn't inspiring. I couldn't understand a word from Turandot herself, the Austrian soprano Sophia Larson, and I don't understand why ENO thought it necessary to import someone like her for a production like this. It isn't as though the voice - white and swallowed - is irresistible. But it is icily commanding, and in truth it fits into a cast that by and large delivers the vocal goods very well. Ping, Pang and Pong are outstanding; Janice Watson steals the show as Lui with singing of extraordinary beauty and distinction; and Edmund Barham's Calaf is a triumph of application over raw material. The voice isn't so very big, but when it comes into focus gives the impression of scale; and, dressed in an all-purpose black trenchcoat which has probably seen service in a doz-en Aldenesque productions, he gives an unexpectedly credible all-round performance.

ENO's demoralised orchestra, meanwhile, acquires an unexpected splendour under David Atherton, who adds dimension to the sound by bringing half his brass out of the pit, and otherwise inspires a force and substance of delivery that hasn't been heard in this house for a long time. Significantly, Atherton is one of the names thought "likely to succeed" Sian Edwards as ENO's music director. He wouldn't be my first choice - that would have to be Paul Daniel - but conducting of this calibre would certainly commend him for the job.

When Umberto Gioradano's Fedora played at Covent Garden a year or so ago I thought it the most vacuous opera I'd ever seen: at best, a decorative vehicle for stars. Since then I've seen Mascagni's Iris ... and now that Fedora is back at the Garden it doesn't seem so bad. A confection of expensive frocks, the idle rich in glamorous locations, and the flimsiest of plots, it's still the operatic answer to a Jackie Collins mini-series and, on the whole, pretty spineless. But with a good cast it has its moments; and when I say the cast this time is very good, I'm not referring to Domingo, but to Covent Garden's B-team of Jose Cura and Maria Guleghina, who are younger, fresher and more interesting than Carreras and Freni last time round. With Cura there is too much drag between the notes to start with, but it blossoms into virile, Latin resonance. With Guleghina there's a firm and absolute control, flawlessly accurate and clean in the attack. I liked them both, enormously. And Edward Downes, too, who conducts as though it matters - which is an achievement in this genre of piece.

Over in Antwerp, the Flemish Opera have a production running of Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, which is one of those pieces we all know about - and can maybe even hum the big Act 1 duet - but never get the chance to see in Britain. So I went across to catch it, and was slightly disappointed. The production isn't Flemish Opera's own: it comes from Berlin, and is a creakily dutiful job by Gotz Friedrich that doesn't capture the stifling passion of the score and falls apart during the second act. But it was worth the journey for the piece itself: an opera of disturbing, fetishistic beauty that deserves considered reappraisal by a British company. It would be good for Opera North.

Set in the watery gloom of Bruges, just along the motorway from Antwerp, Tote Stadt is a Maeterlink-like story of a man's obsession with his dead wife and the futile attempt to "recreate" her in another woman. As an example of post-Wagnerian symbolist theatre it bears comparison with Debussy's Pelleas. But where Pelleas is Wagner in denial, all restraint, discretion and translucency, Die Tote Stadt is Wagner in full bloom: en route to Strauss and lightened by Italian-sounding lyricism, but still sumptuously orchestrated and a gift for well-upholstered helden voices.

The Flemish Opera voices were largely Anglo-American and not so hot, led by the wide tenor of William Cochrane and unvoluptuous soprano of Cynthia Makris (who, from a distance, looks disconcertingly like the Princess of Wales). But the Austrian baritone Michael Kraus is something to get excited about: unknown in Britain but the star of Flemish Opera's recent Billy Budd, and worth some London bookings, I'd have thought.

Other music this week included a Smith Square concert for the 65th birthday of the organist Peter Hurford, given by (and in aid of) a charity called the Voices Foundation, which has been set up to improve the quality of music teaching in schools. All power to that. And then there was a new Cello Concerto by Gavin Bryars at the Barbican, played with as much commitment as you could expect from Julian Lloyd Webber and the ECO, given that it was music of narcotic emptiness that lasted 30 minutes. At best it was Walton in slow motion, like one of those transitional passages where invention takes a rest and the composer spins a gentle cantilena as he feels his way toward a new idea. But Bryars's music isn't in transition. It goes nowhere. And I felt for the musicians and their sponsors: an American couple, Dianne and Michael Bienes, who seem (God bless them) to have adopted the ECO. They should never have been served up such a turkey.

'Turandot': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), continues Wed & Fri.

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