Music: Tales of the more or less expected

ENO's new Tales of Hoffmann is a show that thinks big, looks big, fields big names, and addresses major points of musicology: a Company Statement if you ever saw one. And the input is impressive. But the output is equivocal: superb performances in need of a superb production, which they don't get from the stage director, Graham Vick.

Vick never looks the piece straight in the eye. Nor, you suspect, does he believe in it (which would be a useful starting point). Instead he starts by taking refuge in the opera's title: these are "tales" told to an audience in a space designed (Tobias Hoheisel) to look like an Edwardian music hall. The presentation style is therefore arms-length from the outset, and degenerates into the sort of mildly manic romp someone like Richard Jones would seize and run with. But this doesn't run. It stumbles - or it did on Monday's first night when, despite a long rehearsal period, the staging hadn't come together and the romp rang hollow.

The problem, fundamentally, is an undernourished sense of fantasy. The Antonia scene blossoms, literally, with the high-camp appearance of the dead diva (Jean Rigby) garlanded in floral tributes; but otherwise there's not much magic on the stage. What is all this, Vick seems to say, but the embroidered recollections of a drunken squirt who fails with women? Proceeding on that basis, he delivers something largely unremarkable, with a particularly dreary Prologue that holds up the action longer than normal.

Of course, normality in Hoffmann is a relative concept. There is no fixed edition of the score: it was completed by other hands after Offenbach's death, leaving subsequent interpreters the task of deciding what should be kept or cut. ENO has decided to excise whatever music didn't actually derive from Offenbach, including the recitatives, and the septet in the Giulietta scene, leaving what ought to be a short, sharp show. But then the company has added music which is traditionally left out, and packaged it with extra spoken dialogue which drags the pace and ventures too close to Gilbert & Sullivan for comfort. Tales of Hoffmann is meant to be the piece in which Offenbach escapes from all that.

The chief idea in this staging is that all the objets d'amour should be played by the same singer, and likewise all the villains. This is what the composer wanted, and helps to hold together an otherwise loosely related sequence of scenes. But it's a mighty undertaking for the singers - especially the soprano, who has to encompass in a single evening the high-lying coloratura of a mechanical doll (Olympia), the heartfelt pathos of an adolescent girl (Antonia), and the seductive allure of a worldly courtesan (Giulietta). Sutherland managed it in her time, as did Caballe, but only just. And the miracle of ENO's Hoffmann is that Rosa Mannion handles all the ladies as well as she does. Her Olympia hasn't the pin- sharp particularity of a Sumi Jo, but when she gets into the more comfortable territory of the girl and the courtesan the voice is lovely, if a touch off-colour at the top.

John Tomlinson is predictably magnificent as the villains, fine-tuning the Wagnerian scale of his stage presence to wonderfully distinctive characterisations - all sung with vast reserves of tone and stunning clarity of diction. And Julian Gavin takes the title role as well as anyone could under direction to play it as an affected inadequate. He sings with ardour, fluency, and all the style his past appearances at ENO promised to deliver.

With energised, emphatic musical direction from Paul Daniel and the ENO in heartening form, this ought to be a great show. That its fine ingredients fail to cook in the production oven is a disappointment.

The Royal Opera is at last coming to terms with the straitened circumstances of life on the road. On Monday it produced in concert at the Festival Hall Giordano's Andrea Chenier: a rarity in Britain, but frustrating in the way it spends most of its time edging toward the drama of Tosca and the lyricism of Madam Butterfly without quite hitting either target. Conducted (noisily) by Richard Armstrong, the whole thing was an excuse to reunite the soprano-tenor couple who turned heads and ears in the ROH Fedora last time round, Maria Guleghina and Jose Cura. And again they triumphed: Guleghina like an iron fist in a silken glove, combining power with pathos; Cura conquering all hearts with the radiance, definition and dimension of what must, by now, be acknowledged as a great voice.

The Royal Opera's other alternative venture was a community opera, Heroes Don't Dance, written by Julian Grant and Christina Jones for a cast of hundreds, and playing at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Developed out of workshops with local people, it was a piece that addressed big issues - guilt, responsibility, the true nature of courage - only to cut them drastically down to size. And a magic-realist interplay between the everyday and the fantastic was confusing. But the end result was fun and, taken on their own terms, the performances enjoyable. The small group of professionals at the heart of the enterprise - conductor David Syrus and singers Jillian Arthur and Jozik Kok - handled the whole thing with real accomplishment. And Julian Grant's score fulfilled its requirements, providing plenty of opportunities for amateur voices to shine with safety, some delicious parody numbers, and a haunting final chorus whose insistent, sub-Vaughan Williams melody has loitered in my mind ever since.

Finally, a brief note on a major project about which there will be more to say next week. The LSO has begun a Barbican series of the Shostakovich Symphonies, taking them in chronological order with Shostakovich scores of similar date to make a gradually unfolding survey of his life and work. In charge is Mstislav Rostropovich, whose personal association with the composer from the 1940s to the 1970s gives him unique interpretative authority. But if you've heard Rostropovich's recordings of these symphonies, you'll know that his interpretations are uneven. In fact, compared with Haitink's, they are crazily uneven - reaching for the stars one moment, bluster the next. So I thought it better to hold judgement on the series until more of it emerged.

By next week, it will have reached Symphony No 7 which (out of 15) makes a good place to take stock. Meanwhile you can judge for yourself on Radio 3, which is broadcasting the series more or less as it happens.

'Hoffmann': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Mon & Thurs & in rep. Shostakovich: Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), tonight, Wed & Thurs.

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