MUSIC The critics: Ireland, a land without opera

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IF music is the slow-developer among the arts, still teething when the rest are doing their GCSEs, opera is the slow-developer in music; and here in Britain it's easy to forget how little we had in the way of permanent, year-round opera until after the last war (which Covent Garden spent as a palais de danse). But go to Ireland and you get some idea of how it must have been over here before the war: because in Ireland, opera has developed very slowly indeed. There is still no year-round provision, north or south. Even in Dublin you'll find little beyond occasional touring productions by the young, promising but still small-scale Opera Theatre Company, and two tiny seasons of two operas each from what used to be the Dublin Grand Opera Society. This is now DGOS Opera Ireland: a fudged half-change of name that, I'm afraid, speaks volumes.

The DGOS winter season is running now at the Gaiety Theatre; the shows in question - Gounod's Faust and Rossini's Cenerentola - are the sort of thing the Carl Rosa Opera Co (originally founded in Dublin) might have been staging in the 1930s. Creaky. The Faust has a serviceable set and is competent, but nothing more. Patrick Raftery in the title role provides a warning to baritones who covet tenor-dom and push their voices up beyond their range: he has no top notes, and the ones underneath aren't so hot either. Victor Braun's Mephistopheles tires quickly. And the chorus, who spend much of the time lined up along the footlights, look bizarre: like extras from a Brueghel freak-show - although whether this is nature or contrivance I don't know. The only real pleasure is Jane Leslie Mackenzie, a Canadian soprano whose Marguerite is stylish, accomplished and saves the day.

As for the Cenerentola, it's better conducted and with a mezzo lead, Alison Browner, who has some coloratura. But no one else does, and the staging is the sort of panto-romp where the Ugly Sisters dutifully fall to the floor and show their bloomers at 10-minute intervals. The chorus have clearly been told to break into a dance whenever things are getting slack, which is much of the time. And the only genuine comedy is provided by the fact that the Prince (not a comic character) seems to be wearing a false nose.

I recount all this with a heavy heart, because I do actually feel an affection for DGOS and the people who unstintingly give it their commitment and support. But heaven knows, this is supposed to be a national company, and in one form or another it has been around for half a century: long enough to have reached maturity by now. Local critics tell me that the problem is an undemanding audience, but I can't believe that. Dublin these days is a vibrant city with a rich theatrical and literary culture. There's no reason why it shouldn't welcome serious opera; and it isn't hard to know what DGOS should be doing to supply it.

For one, it should re-align itself within the general opera circuit of the British Isles and take a long, hard look at how things work at WNO, Scottish Opera and Opera North. Politically, you can understand why DGOS has stood apart and tried to pitch itself as international, casting singers from mainland Europe and America when there are often better to be had closer to home. But that certainly hasn't been the route to quality.

Another thing DGOS might consider is an alliance with the Abbey Theatre, or the aforementioned OTC - which, in its modest way, is the hope for opera in Ireland to move forward. Of course I know it's very well for me, an English critic, to make these pronouncements from afar. But I make them because I care about DGOS and want it to work. That it doesn't is self-evident.

Back in Britain, it took an effort of will to go yet again to the Royal Opera's venerable Tosca and sit through the sacristan's comic-mop routine for the thirtieth time. But there was the promise of Maria Ewing in the title role - a promise partly fulfilled. Ewing can be electrifying on the stage, and there were moments when her Tosca came into as sharp a focus as any I've seen. But there were also moments when it faded into the nothingness of just Doing The Role; and when she switches off there's really nothing, because the voice is raw and scooping. Not a thing of beauty.

Sir Georg Solti finished his Bartok series at the Barbican with a chamber concert that was supposed to have featured him as pianist in Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, but, he said, he hadn't had time to practise. So instead he conducted it - which doesn't say much for the demands of stick-waving, although in truth this sonata scarcely needs conducting, and certainly not when the ensemble includes supreme artists such as Andras Schiff and Evelyn Glennie. Over and above the issue of her deafness, Glennie is miraculous. I know of no one who can hit things quite so eloquently; no one who can turn the kitchen hardware of percussion into such intensely characterful sound; and no one who can play a simple eight-note scale on a xylophone and give each note the distinctive quality of weight, dynamic and attack she managed here. Consummate musicianship.

I couldn't make that claim for the West Side Story staged at Wandsworth Prison in honour of Judge Stephen Tumim, the former distinguished Chief Inspector of Prisons effectively sacked by an undistinguished Home Secretary. It was the latest from Pimlico Opera - long supported by Judge Tumim - involving prisoners and professional singers on stage together, and it had its rough edges. But it also had a gut emotional appeal that was profoundly touching. Of course, it's easy to succumb to sentiment in such a context, and no doubt there were true villains on that stage. But they were villains with an endearingly "innocent" appreciation of the skills of the professionals beside them - one of whom, Antoni Garfield Henry, had star quality. The product of inspired hard work from the director Stephen Langridge and conductor Wasfi Kani (the most dynamic force for good in British small-scale opera), it made feel-good music-theatre of considerable power. I only hope that under Michael Howard's new Tumim- less regime, such things won't be dismissed as an irrelevance.

'Tosca': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Mon & Wed.

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