Provincial opera companies tend to avoid certain repertory like fallen cabinet ministers avoid the truth, and for much the same reason: because it's hard, it hurts, and there are other things to think about. Wagner's Tannhauser is an example - a piece that asks a lot without offering much help in return - and I can understand why Opera North hasn't touched it for a long time. The new production just opened in Leeds is accordingly an Event, designed to play out Paul Daniel as the company's music director. And so far as he is concerned, it's a triumph - handsomely conducted with secure, considered tempi, careful phrasing, and a command of orchestral detail that makes a fine finale to his distinguished tenure of the Leeds Grand Theatre pit. His departure will be a loss to the North but a resounding gain to ENO where he takes over in the autumn - and not a moment too soon. The Coliseum badly needs a resident Messiah. I can think of no one better qualified.

But apart from Daniel's contribution, it's a sorry show that doesn't come to terms with the piece - even though, at face value, there might not seem very much to come to terms with. Tannhauser is the simplest of stories. A wandering knight has to choose between two women, steamy Venus versus chaste Elisabeth; and while the competition between them isn't exactly fair - one being a goddess - we all know which is the right choice, and her self-sacrificial devotion sorts things out in the end. Wagnerian women know what's expected of them.

These particular women, though, are more than merely flesh-and-blood. They represent two kinds of love, which is why they have sometimes in the past been sung by the same soprano: Birgit Nilsson on disc, Gwyneth Jones at Bayreuth. A basic requirement of any staging is to present the contrast between their two worlds clearly, convincingly, and without resort to caricature.

Another requirement is to sustain interest in this simple story throughout its considerable length; and here Wagner dumps on the director a real problem. Tannhauser is a transitional work, caught between the established conventions of opera and Wagner's new idea of music drama. It leans towards the abstraction and enlargement of time you find in his later scores but without their inexhaustible intensity. Productions have to find a way to compensate.

But David Fielding's doesn't. It plays on his own clinical set, a white- tiled enclosure with objets levered in from behind the proscenium or dropped from the fly in much the manner of his designs for ENO's old Simon Boccanegra. It's stylish, clean, you could eat off its floor; and you probably have, in many an Islington bistro. But it doesn't tell you much about the women and their worlds. It doesn't invest them with significance. There's no compelling sense of myth or magic. And maybe I was suffering from Election `97 fall-out, but the more I saw the finger of God that poked down from the sky, the more it reminded me of Peter Snow's swingometer. Tannhauser's white suit (worn over a breastplate) was clearly one of Martin Bell's on loan.

Tannhauser himself was the big disappointment. Jeffrey Lawton gave no sense of who he was (a minstrel), or of anything beyond amiable uncertainty about which of the women really mattered to him. Vocally he barked through what should be the notes, with not much texture but an oversized vibrato.

Anne-Marie Owens sings more attractively, but otherwise makes an unalluring Venus: Cynthia Payne on a binge, with ostrich feathers. Elisabeth should win hands down here; and as sung by Rita Cullis she does, although the tone can be strident and the delivery more robust than touching.

The chorus, I'm glad to say, are superb, proving themselves, as always, one of Opera North's great assets. It's other great asset is that it tries. Hard. But trying Tannhauser was in this case bravery without wisdom.

There was more bravery on Wednesday at the Brighton Festival where New Sussex Opera risked (and I'm afraid got) half-empty houses for the British premiere of Gottfried von Einem's Danton's Death. I guess it was inevitable. But the incurious who stayed away missed something special - of revelatory power and not at all tough on the ear. Written at the end of the last war, Danton's Death is an Austro-German Peter Grimes, and there's a strange proximity of manner, style and consequence between the two. Almost exactly contemporary (although Danton reached the stage two years after Grimes), they both made an immediate impact, offering a fresh, post-war start to the operatic life of their home countries; and they both work within the established conventions of lyrical tonality - reinterpreted but not rejected. Like Grimes, Danton is an individual-against- the-crowd piece, with a strong, assertive chorus and a bizarrely Brittenesque way with musical symbolism.

But for all that, it remains Germanic, its eclecticism (from Stravinskyan syncopation to Broadway blues) ultimately anchored between Hindemith and Strauss. It's also punchily compact, masterfully orchestrated, and dynamic theatre, with a Second Act tribunal scene (Robespierre condemning Danton to the guillotine) that I'm tempted to call the most powerful and compelling operatic ensemble written in the last half-century. Why this outstanding piece has had to wait so long for a British staging dumfounds me. New Sussex Opera make up some lost time with towering performances from Andrew Slater, Alan Oke and Alison Roddy in the leads. The amateur chorus could be stronger, and the staging - on a set half-Mondrian, half-Texas Homecare - is limited. But the bought-in Flanders Symphony Orchestra play with gut and muscle under David Angus; and though the performance is too much for the voices to contend with, it delivers the excitement of the score in certain terms. Time now for one of the more mainstream British opera companies to take this piece and run with it.

Master Class, the just-opened play about Maria Callas (see Robert Butler's theatre review, page 11) is a magnificent fantasy, remarkable for the way it reconciles the myth of the Great Diva with the reality of a vulnerable human being. The goddess stirs and turns out to be funny, touching, holding on (but only just) to the iron message of her career - which is that art is an exacting discipline and takes no prisoners.

That message could usefully have been pasted in large letters over Monday's solo recital by David Helfgott at the Festival Hall, which was probably the saddest spectacle I've ever witnessed on a concert platform. Shine was an engaging film with a wonderful story; but that doesn't make the real-life, latterday David Helfgott a wonderful pianist, and what happened on Monday was disjointed, incoherent, and more like someone singing in the bath than a performance. There were glimpses of poetic sensitivity; but you could say as much for any of 100,000 piano students. And that was the absurdity of this concert. Everywhere there are fine pianists struggling to be heard; and here was a capacity audience in a major hall, paying way over the odds to hear someone who isn't fine at all. The overall ticket pricing was higher than you'd pay to hear Maurizio Pollini give his Beethoven Sonata cycle on the same stage. The programme booklet - much of which was taken up with details about the promoters of the David Helfgott World Tour (for such it is) - cost pounds 6.

If the promoters were honest, they'd admit that it has little to do with music, more to do with showbiz. And making a "show" of David Helfgott strikes me as grimly exploitative: the sort of thing the warders of Bedlam did when they charged 18th-century gentlefolk to view their patients. David Helfgott obviously enjoys the attention, and I hope he's earning a lot of money from it. I'm told he's a delightful man. But for that very reason he should be spared the fate of passing into history as the Florence Foster Jenkins of the piano.

Tannhauser: Leeds Grand Theatre (0113 245 9351), Sat and 24 May; and in concert at the RFH, SE1 (0171 960 4242), 14 June.

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