MUSIC; Samson's show of strength

THE loyalties of my opera- loving neighbours have been tested in recent weeks, as Covent Garden's opening nights have time and again clashed with the Tuesday-evening broadcasts of The House (BBC2). You could almost believe the Garden's management had planned it; if they had, it would be understandable as, episode by episode, The House has proved a riveting but effortless indictment of the way the nation's premiere opera house is run. Somebody switches on a camera and the skeletons come dancing - in formation, numbered, and with sequins - out of every cupboard: it's an awesome piece of bad PR and you can only wonder what the Garden ever thought they stood to gain from it. Perhaps they gambled that we'd look beyond the backstage shambles, ineffectual management, and dismal relics of the English ruling classes on the various Covent Garden boards, and put it all down to impossible working conditions caused by underfunding. But they gambled wrong. I fear the only consequence of The House will be that it becomes even more difficult for those of us who care about Covent Garden and support it in principle - as a great national institution - to stand up and support it in practice.

However ... there is one respect in which The House has so far done Covent Garden an injustice. By concentrating its fire on life behind the green baize door, the series hasn't made much of the fact that the Garden does largely fulfil its artistic objective of staging quality work. Standards have certainly been anchored at a higher and more stable altitude since Nicholas Payne came down from Leeds to become the Royal Opera's director; and the revival of Samson et Dalila that opened on Tuesday was a case in point.

Saint-Saens's biblical epic doesn't easily make gripping theatre: there's no way round the oratorio-like stasis of the opening scene (where captive Israelites conduct themselves with the vocal decorum of the Huddersfield Choral Society in mid-Bach) or the anodyne politeness of the Act III Bacchanalia (a failure of nerve comparable to the RAF march-past number Walton offers as the pagan climax to Belshazzar's Feast). Meanwhile, the elements in the story that do lend themselves to dramatic treatment are swept aside. For practical reasons, we never see Samson's hair being cut or the thousand Philistines slain with an ass's jaw-bone, and the demolition of the temple is confined to 30 seconds as the curtain falls. But Elijah Moshinsky's production is clear-headed and knuckles down to the surviving operatic business of love, loss and revenge without undue recourse to Cecil B De Mille-type spectacle or amateur psychology. Bathed in red ochre lighting, the late Sidney Nolan's designs can't quite decide whether the action is in Gaza or the Australian outback, but are strong and striking. And, above all, the music is well served. Saint-Saens fell out of fashion after his death and, apart from a few enduring lollipops like the Carnival of the Animals, has never quite made it back. Critical contemporaries dismissed him as an "algebriste", his vision bound by formula and process. The label has stuck, in that Saint-Saens is still generally filed under C for craftsman rather than G for genius. But at best - and Samson is his best - he was an exquisite melodist and an outstanding orchestrator, and both qualities come through admirably at the Garden. Jacques Delacote, conducting, gets a cultivated and idiomatic response from the Royal Opera orchestra; the chorus are on fine form; and there are good soloists. Greek mezzo Markella Hatziano, substituting for the indisposed Dolora Zajick, is nobody's dream Dalila - more homely than voluptuous - but the voice is all there, well shaped and sensitively used. And there's superbly musical singing from the Samson of Jose Cura, the young Argentine tenor who has made his reputation at the Garden as a cost-effective alternative to Domingo and Carreras in just this sort of role. He may not have the liquid resonance of either of those voices, and one wonders about his stamina (there were chunks where he seemed to take time out and mark the role). But it's a handsome, firm, incisive sound, and Cura makes a powerful presence on the stage. The audience was ecstatic.

But not so ecstatic as for Thomas Quasthoff, the much talked-about German baritone who made his London recital debut at the Wigmore on Wednesday. It was a good, old-fashioned triumph, scored by a voice of remarkable beauty that carries its lyricism and visceral resonance down to a depth of pitch that could probably turn him into a bass-baritone - if that's what he wanted. The general colour of the sound is dark; and for this he chose dark repertory, centred on some of the not-so-often- heard extended ballad settings of Schubert and, with peculiar (though unemphasised) poignancy, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) - for reasons that require no comment if you've read this week's extensive British news coverage on Quasthoff. If you haven't, I should explain that he was born with thal- idomide-type disabilities. There's no point in denying that they present something for an audience to come to terms with, as they obviously do for the singer him- self. Performance is after all a holistic compound of body, soul and mind. But if there's one lesson to be learnt from the singing culture of fat sopranos and emaciated tenors, it's that the body you see is ultimately a product of the soul you hear; and 10 minutes with Thomas Quasthoff proved that beyond doubt. He was radiant, charismatic, with an easy manner (perhaps too easy in songs where he could have squeezed more meaning from the text). He hasn't as yet the intensity of a Holzmair or a Fischer-Dieskau, and he isn't en- couraged in that direction by an accompanist, Charles Spencer, whose pianism is supportive but soft. They both need to tighten up their act. But even now, it is some act.

Alas there's no potential, except for hype, to report in something that opened at the Albert Hall on Thursday calling itself The Centenary La Boheme - as though there aren't countless productions of Boheme running throughout the world, this year as any other. What gives the promoter of the project, Raymond Gubbay, the right to that definite article I can't imagine - perhaps the ghost of Puccini appeared in a vision and laid hands on him - but the result is nothing to get excited about. In fact it's a lamentable introduction to opera for all those newcomers Gubbay claims to be attracting: the design is poor, the production utter tosh, the acting coarse, the singing adequate but so grotesquely amplified it sounds like the special effects at a ghost train ... and whoever thought the Albert Hall an appropriate space for a piece where three out of four acts are intimate needs their head examined. If you thought of going, don't.

'Samson': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Mon & Sat. 'Boheme': Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), to Sat.

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