Music: Return of the prowling benchmark baritone

When I was at school I remember hearing a live broadcast of Carmina Burana from the Proms; and though I barely knew the music, I knew enough to realise that the sudden disappearance of the baritone soloist, followed by a loud crash, wasn't in the score. The soloist had fainted; the performance was stopped (with an appeal to any off-duty baritones in the audience to step forward); and it marked my introduction - inauspicious but memorable - to the art of Thomas Allen, who thereafter became a fixture in my listening life. The compleat baritone with altitude (sic), he had the versatility, vocal compass and dramatic gifts to command a wide range of work; therefore many of my first encounters with vocal repertory were through him. In opera, oratorio and song, his rich-toned musical intelligence set benchmarks, as it seemed to me. No doubt it was the same for anyone discovering opera in the Seventies who was lucky enough to catch the run of Mozart baritones - Papageno, Figaro, Don Giovanni - that he sang at Glyndebourne, or the Billy Budds he sang everywhere else, not least at Covent Garden.

This week he celebrated 25 years at the Garden with a Don Giovanni which is the first in a series of stagings specially scheduled to mark the anniversary. Unfortunately it's a revival of the 1992 Johannes Schaaf production, which has never worked well, It's unlikely to be seen again, if Jeremy Isaacs's recent comments on the whole Schaaf Mozart-cycle are anything to go by ("I had it foisted on me" was their essence). With pitch-black sets, poor lighting and clumsy scene-changes, it narrates the story badly. And this revival suffers from a sensitive but dull conductor - Dietfried Bernet, substituting for Sir Charles Mackerras - with a British-based cast that looks good on paper but which doesn't deliver. Felicity Lott's Elvira and Anthony Rolfe Johnson's Ottavio never quite come into focus. Yvonne Kenny's Anna has a beautiful liquidity but not enough weight. And only Alison Hagley (Zerlina) and Robert Lloyd really go for their roles.

But that just clears the decks for Thomas Allen, whose night it becomes without question. Don Giovanni is his calling card. And where long-term relationships between singers and roles sometimes atrophy, handcuffed to a fixed conception of what was once a good idea, Allen's Giovanni grows in stature and refinement, with a menace that extends beyond sexual libertinage into voyeuristic torment. This particular Giovanni barely leaves the stage: he lingers on in shadowy corners, savouring the consequences of his actions like the animateur to a private theatre of distress. He pulls up a chair to get a more comfortable view of Anna's tears over the body of her father. And whether the initiative for all this comes from director (in which case it's one of his more inspired contributions) or singer, Allen becomes the prowling spectator with absolute conviction: a connoisseur of other people's pain who in another time and place would be commanding transports to Auschwitz or administering justice in dubious South American regimes.

He was also singing well on Monday night, with a firmer, fuller tone than last time round (when he seemed in ominous vocal trouble), and a relish for language that delivers Da Ponte's Italian with much the same synthesis of energy, clarity and finesse that you'd hear him afford AE Houseman's English in a recital. In all, this was a Giovanni to file alongside Allen's suave, Armani-suited Don Alfonso in the last Royal Opera Cosi, or his chasteningly poignant Beckmesser in the Garden's Meistersinger: different animals, but equally alive. The Beckmesser returns this season as part of Allen's anniversary series, and alongside it will be new, potentially uncomfortable character roles in Massenet's Cherubin and Pfitzner's epic Palestrina. Nobody could say this singer sits on his success.

Throughout the 1980s Thomas Allen was one of the handful of serious international voices who maintained a regular relationship with the Coliseum; and, without slight to the week-in, week-out excellence of ENO, it has to be said that the occasional presence of someone in that league does make a difference - as it does in the current revival of Rigoletto, which has Janice Watson as the Gilda. It's her debut in the role, and she's a joy to hear, with an endearing but not winsome innocence, a bright, clear top, and a secure technique that underpins the whole performance. Peter Sidhom's Rigoletto was eclipsed (he had apparently been ill, and wasn't in good voice or presence: there was very little fire in the attack), and so was just about everything else - except Jonathan Miller's New York Mafioso staging which, after 14 years of come-backs, is as on-target as ever. The West Side Story-style sets still cast their melancholic, Edward Hopper spell. When the overture ends and the curtain rises on Miller's gangland bar, the below-the-belt surprise of cultural disorientation never fails. And the glimpsed world of off-centre detail - bent policemen turning blind eyes, gangsters' molls knowing their place - is endlessly fascinating. ENO periodically threatens to retire this Rigoletto, but I can see it doing business until the sets disintegrate.

A few subway stops from the real 1950s Little Italy, you'd have found two composers independently writing small-scale stageworks about mid-life insecurity and what happens when the American Dream wakes up. One, a jewel- like 10-minute comedy, was Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge; the other was Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, a tragicomic 45-minute vaudeville which Bernstein later enlarged into the full opera A Quiet Place; they both played this week at the Southwark Playhouse, in highly effective little productions by Paul Baillie that got a lot out of very little in the way of physical resources. They underestimated the true operatic claims of both the pieces by casting them with too many West End voices: the intonation of the sardonic, smiling scat singers in Tahiti needs to be razor-sharp for the joke to work. But Dinah, the troubled, disconnected housewife Bernstein almost certainly modelled on his own mother, was impressively done by Lori Isley Lynn: an American whose voice and career-credits resist categorisation but amount to something striking that I'd be pleased to hear in grander circumstances.

Finally a note on the Clerkenwell Music Series, an off-the-beaten-track festival run by composer Roger Steptoe (who used to organise the superb composer-profile weeks at the Royal Academy of Music) that's in its stride now after two years of tentative growth. The 1996 themes are England and Denmark; the programmes are brilliantly devised; and Thursday's, which included Nielsen's faux naif, adorable Springtime in Funen, a rare shot at Delius's Seven Danish Songs, and a UK premiere by the contemporary Dane Bo Holten, was one of the most fascinating concerts I've heard in months. There's more to be said about it (and about the series in general), which must wait until next week, when things culminate in a celebration for the 85th birthday of Ursula Vaughan Williams. But I want to flag it here that Clerkenwell is turning into something special; it's worth investigating.

`Don Giovanni': ROH, WC2 ( 0171 304 4000), continues Tues & Fri. `Rigoletto': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Sat. Clerkenwell Music Series: Holy Redeemer Church, EC1 (0171 228 8546), to Sun 17 Nov.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £10,000 Uncapped - Part Time

    £7500 - £10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness chai...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer - 2nd & 3rd Line

    £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The IT Support Engineer is needed to ass...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Officer

    £15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: It's an exciting time for this ...

    Recruitment Genius: Junior / Mid Software Developer

    £22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones