Music Review: The quite appallingly dismal Widow

Wilderness experiences are meant to be chastening, and the Royal Opera's annees de pelerinage are proving nothing less. News broke this week that after only a month or so of busking from theatre to theatre, the company has hit financial crisis. And its brave attempt to make its homelessness a time for repertoire experiments has got off to a crazily uneven start, following a sublime Turn of the Screw with a Merry Widow so inadequate, you can only wonder how a major state-supported company has the gall to show it to the public.

Conceived as a commercial venture and running, West End style, night after night through to January with alternating casts, it boasts some stars, a good venue (the Shaftesbury Theatre), and a new singing translation by Jeremy Sams. Which all looks fine on paper. But on stage there's not a jot of the vitality and flair that any real commercial venture would need to stay in business beyond three nights. In fact, there's nothing at all. And though the nothingness of Graham Vick's staging might seem calculated - an attempt to suck the cream out of a Viennese confection - it is no such thing. Merely a lazy show, devoid of ideas, atmosphere and design.

Lehar's symphonic score is decimated into hackwork under the conductor, Dietfried Bernet. And why the Royal Opera flies in foreign singers like Claudio Desderi, Juliette Galstian and Luca Canonici to stumble unconvincingly through English dialogue is unfathomable. Thomas Allen's Danilo is the nearest you get to a decent performance, but undersung. And Felicity Lott's idea of Widowed Merriment is too much the Marschallin playing a summer season at Torquay, declaimed with stiff hauteur and hands on hips.

I don't much care for Merry Widow: it's a musical meringue, all air and sugar. But it speaks for a distinctive time and culture that, if you're going to bother with the piece at all, deserve consideration; and the lack of consideration in this show is damning. Avoid it.

Go instead to the example of what can be done with second-division theatre pieces running at the Barbican, under the title Vision of Albion. It's a series of Vaughan Williams's operas, given largely in concert performance by the London Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox. And though VW's genius didn't exactly lie in the direction of theatre, there are gems of lyrical invention in even the weakest of these scores: not least The Poisoned Kiss, a 1920s pantomime you'd never want to see on stage, but which was worth hearing last Sunday, thanks to a strikingly committed cast (Felicity Palmer, Janice Watson, Thomas Randle, John Graham-Hall) and Hickox's great gift for turning things like this into Events.

In fairness to the Kiss, I should say that its best moments have a melodic and harmonic beauty oddly prescient of the language of American music theatre, with at least one number yearning for Stephen Sondheim to come and rescue it 60 years on. To that extent it transcends the claim that VW was a purely local phenomenon whose interest in folk material gave nothing to the wider world in the way that Bartk's did. But Poisoned Kiss remains a slight score: not in the same league as VW's 5th Symphony, which the LSO played in the second half, and, paradoxically, not so well.

The climax of the Vision of Albion series comes tomorrow, when Hickox conducts VW's epic pageant Pilgrim's Progress. Having heard him do it earlier this year at the St Endellion Festival and been knocked sideways by its transcendental power, I can safely recommend tomorrow's performance as unmissable.

On Thursday, the LSO welcomed back its old principal conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, for a programme with Schoenberg's odd orchestral enlargement of the Brahms 1st Piano Quartet as a centrepiece. Schoenberg supposedly made this orchestration to address the problems of balance in the original between the piano and the strings; and its interest lies in the way he redistributes the piano part to other instruments. But the result is monstrously outsized, with heavy, clotted textures that aspire to richness but fail. They fail because there's never enough going on harmonically to occupy the full orchestral forces. What you hear is subterfuge and padding.

And I'm afraid you heard much the same when Jessye Norman sang Berlioz's Nuits d'ete later in the programme. There was a lot of presentation here, but honest vocal art? I'm not so sure. The stately grandeur of it all, the look of permanent surprise, the outsized gestures were absurd: no true response to Berlioz's music or to Gautier's words. And when you peeled away the package from the product, what was left? Poor intonation, elongated vowels, distorted phrasing: a performance choked by artifice.

This was a great voice, once. It may be still. But only if Norman cleans up her act and steps back from the purlieus of self-parody - where she's become a gift for La Gran Scena, the American ensemble whose collected voices, gowns and viciousness rank them among the grandest mezzos and sopranos in the business.

That they all happen to be men is almost incidental. And their new show at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Vera ... Life of a Diva, is a moving tribute in words and song to their most illustrious member, Madame Vera Galupe- Borszkh: known to the world as La Dementia, and to the police as Ira Siff.

From the time when she survived a fatal plane crash, using her Aida wig as a flotation device, Madame Galupe-Borszkh has been a legend, regularly witnessed on the Bloomsbury stage over the past eight years. Opera deserves her, as it does the whole Gran Scena universe of Kavatina Turner, Mirella Frenzy and Fodor Szedan. The humour lies in its uncomfortable proximity to real life. And the Gramophone Awards on Monday were a prime example.

If the test of a good Awards night is the quality of person you find yourself standing next to at the urinal, Monday scored high. The great and good who normally send apologies to these things turned out in force - and after 20 years of trying to interest television in the event, all power to the Gramophone that it has finally succeeded. The coverage the following night can only have been good for the classical record industry's declining sales.

But it was ironic that the TV company which screened the awards wasn't upmarket Channel 4 or BBC2 but downmarket Carlton, setting a tone which could hardly have been lower. Every time Jill Dando in her sequin-bright Come-Dancing-manner voice asked artists like Murray Perahia or Andreas Scholl to give us a tune, the audience collectively gagged (off camera, of course). And it was all too obvious that Carlton had only agreed to film if the awards if they were massaged into a celebrity house-party - resulting in a circle-dance of Pavarotti presenting something to Roberto Alagna, Kiri te Kanawa presenting something to Pavarotti, and so on. If Carlton are involved next year it will presumably be the same people shuffling the same gongs in a slightly different order.

That said, it was probably right that Alagna and Gheorghiu's EMI recording of La Rondine took the best-opera category (not least for the superb conducting of Antonio Papano); the LSO/ Colin Davis disc of Sibelius Symphonies 1 & 4 (RCA) deserved the orchestral category; and it was good to see the chamber award go to Decca's disc of Ravel Sonatas played by Chantal Juillet, Truls Mork and Pascal Roge - a dream-ticket trio. Otherwise, my chief memory of the night will be who did and who did not applaud the extract from Paul McCartney's Standing Stone that finished the proceedings. Rostropovich clapped ecstatically, blew kisses, beamed and waved. Gyorgy Ligeti folded his arms and pulled a face as long as winter in Siberia.

'Merry Widow': Shaftesbury Theatre, WC1 (0171 304 4000), Tues-Sat, then in rep to 10 Jan. 'Pilgrim's Progress': Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), Mon.

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