Music: Walton's a white hope once again

The Critics

William Walton used to say that sensitive composers should die at 37, "before today's white hope becomes tomorrow's black sheep". And through the last decades of his life - spent self-exiled to Ischia in the Bay of Naples - he undoubtedly felt forgotten: eclipsed at home by Britten and out of the game so far as the serialist avant-garde of Europe were concerned. But 13 years after his death, in a more tolerantly pluralistic musical world no longer so sure that tonality is a spent force, Walton is everywhere. He accounted for most of the opening programme for Manchester's Bridgewater Hall last month (crummily played, but that's another matter). Next week at the Festival Hall the BBCSO begins a Walton series under Andrew Davis. The new Walton Edition on Chandos continues to attract interest and awards throughout the world. And the seventh annual Walton Foundation summer school has just been held on Ischia, in the house where the composer lived and died (his ashes are buried in the garden), and where his widow Susana has created the best possible memorial for a musician: a haven of performance and study, where promising young artists can retreat from the world for a few weeks and refine their skills.

To date the artists have been singers, the skills stagecraft, and the result a series of projects which haven't always had much contact with Walton - who didn't write so many operas. But this year things got back on some sort of track with a double bill of L'Occasione Fa Il Ladro by Rossini (who Walton used to claim as his favourite composer!) and Walton's own one-acter The Bear: two frothy miniatures, but viable and right for stage-craft exercise in that they expose a small number of characters to close-up scrutiny.

The Bear was written on Ischia - in the room next door to the one in which it played last weekend - but at the request of Benjamin Britten for the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival. History doesn't record Britten's response to the way it parodies (sometimes sharply) his own writing. But then, the score parodies other composers too: the aim is broad. And at the same time, it reads like a pocket dictionary of Waltonian style, cataloguing his mannerisms like morsels of musical DNA available for cloning.

That, I think, is The Bear's problem: it feels like a collation of fragments waiting to be cooked into an authentic whole. But the fragments are in many cases brilliant, memorable, with splinters of tunes that stab the mind long after hearing and must be fun to perform. At Ischia they were sung with conviction by Jane Stevenson as Popova the inconsolable widow, Nicholas Forty as Smirnov the uncouth neighbour with whom she falls in love, and Roland Wood as Luka the laconic servant: all young voices of promise.

But Ischia is more about stage-craft than singing, and the direction here was by Jonathan Miller, who grows ever more at odds with the uncomfortable realities of the professional opera circuit, ever keener to step back into the fringe circumstances of simple, small-scale work with singers who haven't been, as he says, "deformed" by the system. At 62 he's clearly slipping into Late Works mode, abandoning the inessential, grappling after pure, core truths, and very often - in those big houses where he does still take engagements - ditching not only the applaudable scenery but the size of gesture needed to fill the stage with interest. But anyone who saw his dramatised Matthew Passion or the recent Rodelinda at Broomhill will know that Miller makes good with intimacy; and the intimate circumstances at Ischia were perfect for him. The characterisation was thoughtful, intelligent (except for one gag that the pursuit of pure, core truth should have bypassed) and complex in a way that challenged the singers a mite beyond their capabilities. Maybe that qualified the end result, but it served the broader purpose of the course.

The Rossini, staged by Patrick Young, a staff director from Covent Garden, challenged the singers less and accordingly made more comfortable, though thinner, theatre. Most of the cast were Italian, but the undoubted star was a British soprano from the Royal Northern College, Lorna Lisa Rushton, who struck me as potentially a great talent: the voice clear and capacious, the manner easy and engaging. You can judge for yourself when the Ischia double bill comes to Britain, opening at the Buxton Opera House on 1 November.

Jonathan Miller's needlepoint attack is a very different culture to the showbiz punch of Ian Judge, who ran the Ischia course last year; and Judge's production of Don Quixote at ENO revived on Wednesday with its West End song-and-dance routines better integrated into the piece than before. There's also a fortuitous cast change that brings in Sally Burgess as Dulcinee: a cleaner-living, smoke- free variant of her many Carmens, beautifully delivered and a joy to hear. But the laurels necessarily go to Richard Van Allen, nearing the end of his career now and a touch vulnerable in the voice but absolutely right for the title role, which he delivers with a moving synthesis of pathos and presence.

In the diplomatic language of the Royal Opera, Richard Jones has "developed" his custard-pie production of Die Walkure; and in plainer talk that means he has bowed to pressure, ditching some of the more grotesquely ill-conceived aspects of his original work (including Brunnhilde's gymslip costume with jokey skeleton overprint) and refurbishing Acts II and III to look less trashy. It's an improvement - but heaven knows there was room to improve, and there still is. Monday's revival remained, for the most part, something to hear rather than watch, with superlatively vital singing from Deborah Polaski (the un-skeletal Brunnhilde), John Tomlinson (a manic Wotan) and Jane Henschel (Fricka, but still dressed like Miss Havisham). Poul Elming (Siegmund) and Ulla Gustaffson (Sieglinde) had less good nights; and Bernard Haitink's conducting gets grander but slower.

Golden Moment of the Week came in the unlikely context of Raymond Blanc's still, sadly, token music festival at the Manoir aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford. It opened on Tuesday with Julian Lloyd Webber and John Lenehan playing bits and pieces calculated to spoil no one's appetite. But in the middle of them came a glorious reading of Delius's single-movement Cello Sonata followed by a jewel-like Nocturne that could almost have passed for Ravel but was in fact an exquisite miniature by William (pere) Lloyd Webber. Delivered from the heart but with an unaffected dignity it was the most purely pleasurable cello-playing I've heard in ages.

`The Bear' & `L'Occasione': Buxton Opera House (01298 72190), 1 & 2 Nov. `Don Quixote': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8000), continues Thurs & Sat. `Die Walkure': Royal Opera House, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues 25 Oct.

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