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.

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
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

    VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

    Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

    Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

    Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

    £50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices