Music: Keep it cheap and Cosi, Graham

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Indy Lifestyle Online
GLYNDEBOURNE'S last Cosi fan tutte was a decorative dames-at- sea affair that camouflaged the implausibilities (and political incorrectness) of the plot in the farce of shipboard romance. But that was Trevor Nunn, working at a time when theatrical ships stayed afloat. These days you have to sink them; and Graham Vick's new Cosi, which opened the 1998 season on Thursday, scuppers froth and decoration in favour of a sober dalliance with ideas.

Vick's big idea is that Cosi's problems vanish if you take the piece on strictly Age of Reason terms as a cool, clinical "laboratory"experiment in living. The theatre's equivalent of the laboratory is the rehearsal space, so that's what Vick provides on stage: a Cosi in rehearsal, in a bare space - casual clothes, a pair of radiators and some plastic chairs, no more. It must be Glyndebourne's cheapest show on record, and the first- night audience clearly felt short-changed.

So did I. But not because I missed the frocks (good riddance to them). What I missed was any sense of life in the performances; the vital interactive charge you need to get away with doing opera on a bare stage. Vick is clearly after the forensic sharpness of Jonathan Miller's Covent Garden Cosi, which works wonderfully with next to nothing in the way of props and sets. But such sharpness eludes him. And he doesn't ultimately do much with his own rehearsal-space idea, which plays out clumsily - and, as this is the first in a projected trilogy of the Da Ponte/Mozart operas, ominously. If the rest of them are like this, there'll be dreary Glyndebourne times ahead.

But the singing, from Barbara Frittoli, Katarina Karneus, Natale de Carolis and Roberto Sacca as the lovers, Alan Opie as Alfonso, and Daniela Mazzucato as Despina, is uniformly strong. If anything it's too strong, with a thrust and hardness that takes its tone partly from the production and partly from Andrew Davis's forceful attempts to make the London Philharmonic Orchestra sound like a period band. If he'd had the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra in the pit (as on previous Glyndebourne Mozart nights) he could have taken that for granted and addressed his efforts to a tender, radiant, more forgiving sound.

Back in London, the opera event of the week came courtesy of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, who were at the Albert Hall on Monday for a concert performance of La Rondine, the Puccini score the world dismissed until, last year, the Alagna/Gheorghiu EMI recording came out and swept the Gramophone Awards. This was in effect a re-enactment of the recording, but with different support - led by the Royal Opera orchestra under a conductor, Gianluigi Gelmetti, whose approach was softer and slower, but still made the music smile. And that's the critical factor in La Rondine: it's the lightest-spun of all Puccini's scores, not much more than an operetta, with a slimline story (La Traviata minus the death) and an Act II finale that would be Andrew Lloyd Webber avant la lettre if it wasn't crafted with such delicacy.

Alagna was engaging and supple; Gheorghiu floated top notes that could melt a banker's heart. My only complaint is that they were miked - not grotesquely, but in a way that roughened the sound and did no one any favours. It shouldn't have been necessary, and the only possible excuse is that the performance took place on the set of the Royal Opera's Traviata, which is little more than sewn-together bedsheets, but does involve the removal of the Hall's acoustic canopy. If that's the reason, then the mikes are understandable. But they're disturbing. As was the experience I had last weekend in America when the pianist Van Cliburn collapsed in mid-concerto during a grand, gala opening concert for the $68 million Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas.

You might wonder why they need a concert hall in a place like Fort Worth, otherwise known as "cowtown" and "where the West begins". But this rather civilised city happens to be the home of a celebrated piano competition, the Van Cliburn, which until now has camped in makeshift spaces. And it's also the home of the (reputedly) richest family in Texas, the Basses, who - contrary to all expectations of Texan plutocracy - are serious people, with a passion for environmental issues and a mission to make Fort Worth whatever its glitzy neighbour Dallas isn't. Hence the Hall which, pointedly, is not a sleek, modernist monument like IM Pei's Meyerson Hall in Dallas, but a cosy reinterpretation of the sort of hall they built in Central Europe in the early 1900s - complete with Jugendstil embellishments and two vast limestone angels, 50 ft high, on the street facade.

As architecture it's in arguable taste, heavy with ornament and jokes that will wear thin, including a two-bar motif from Dvorak's New World Symphony that repeats minimalistically through the tiling in the lavatories - treble clef for the Ladies, bass clef for the Gents. But the sound is another matter: a masterpiece of acoustic engineering that triumphs over the basic challenge of the brief, which was to accommodate opera as well as concerts with a fixed proscenium stage.

By common consent, the ideal reverberation time for concerts is greater than for opera: a two-second delay as opposed to 1.6-second; and proscenium stages make notoriously bad concert spaces, visually and sonically. But with a retractable concert-ceiling that masks the divide between stage and auditorium, stretching out and up, the problems are solved; and the result is one of the finest sounds I've ever heard in a large-scale (2,000 seats) room. It meets the classic requirements of brilliance, clarity, transparency and warmth; and it's miraculously "live" - especially for piano sound. Which is just as well, given the Van Cliburn connection.

Cliburn is Fort Worth's most famous son, and a near-legendary figure who has managed to sustain a world reputation on the strength of distant memories. He hit the headlines 40 years ago, winning the first ever Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at a time when the Cold War was at its height and his victory was guaranteed to have political resonances. America claimed him as a hero. Russia tried to do the same. And for a while he was perhaps the most famous classical musician alive, as well as the most expensive. Even today (I was reliably told) his fee for a concerto is $125,000: more than any other pianist - Brendel, Kissin, Barenboim - would dare to ask.

But all these pressures proved too much. After a short career he withdrew from the platform, devoting his life and wealth to the competition that bears his name. In recent years he's made a sort of comeback, but cautiously, the concerts few and far between. So his appearance at the opening of the Bass Hall was heavy with expectation.

And tension, which showed from the start of his performance of the 2nd Rachmaninov Concerto. Stiff with a manic, glacial grandeur (and a lot of wrong notes), his tempi were slow and deliberate, the orchestra (the Fort Worth Symphony under John Giordano) sagging at the knees to hold back for them. And then, in the 3rd Movement, he completely lost his way. There was a forearm crash on to the keyboard, and for just a second it seemed like a temper tantrum. But instead of walking off, he crumpled to the floor, out cold. The audience gasped, the paramedics rushed in. "Everybody pray for him," pleaded a lady cellist in a Southern Baptist accent pleaded.

It wasn't terminal, and he was out of hospital the next day. But if Cliburn ever plays again I'll be surprised. A grand hall opens with the closing of a grand career: poetic give and take, but still a sad event.

'Cosi': Glyndebourne (01273 813813), today & Sat. Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas (00 1 44 817 212 4300).