Not just a pretty country garden

MUSIC

The Hedges of Garsington village were looking ominously good, strimmed to perfection. But diplomacy and rain kept the strimmers indoors last Sunday, and the long- awaited British stage premiere of Richard Strauss's gyptische Helena passed triumphantly without disruption in a way that marked Garsington once and for all as an opera establishment of substance. Until now, this country-garden venue has hovered on the border between the serious and the decorative; but with gyptische Helena it comes of age, filling a major gap in Britain's operatic repertoire and doing it superbly well despite considerable problems with the piece which have always limited its currency beyond the Strauss home-base of Munich.

To start with, it's perhaps the loopiest story ever dignified with music: an attempt to reconcile an inconsistency in ancient myth. Helen(a) is the straying wife who caused the Trojan Wars and then, according to Homer, returned to her husband Menelaus as though nothing had happened. This was hard even for the ancients to account for; and Strauss's solution - adapted from Euripedes - is that Menelaus is persuaded by a magic potion to believe there were two Helens: a chimera planted by the gods to cause trouble while the real one was spirited away to Egypt where she behaved impeccably. Continuing the story, he then dabbles in Freudian psychology and has Helen confess the truth because she's afraid Menelaus will now love the memory of a chimera rather than actuality of her real self. But by this point the audience has given up, baffled by the complications and bemused by ill-explained characters like the sorceress Aithra and her constant compan- ion the "Omniscient Mussel". Red Herring would be a better name.

You could put all this down to German sense of humour, and indeed the original idea for Helena was that it should be a light-hearted "singspiel". But Teutonic sobriety engulfed the project, and brought with it an opulent score that sums up the glittering past of Rosenkavalier and Ariadne and looks forward to the mature future of Capriccio. Nothing could be further from a singspiel, and it leaves the stage director with a dilemma: how to set a tone that neither undersells the score nor oversells the story.

Garsington's director and designer, David Fielding, gets it absolutely right. Unfussily post-modern, with a touch of Marvel comics and a grain (no more) of irony, he believes the piece but doesnot indulge it - framing the action in a 45-degree set that looks like an expensive stand at a motor show (minus the Ferrari) and magically transforms into a ship on which the happy-ever-after couple ultimately sail away. To build some sense of purpose, Fielding talks up Helena's potential as an allegory on relationships, real and pretended. And he brings unlikely chic to the Omniscient Mussel who floats (if that's what mussels do) stylishly about the stage like Diana Ross with a seafood hairdo.

The cast is excellent, led by Susan Bullock, whose glamour, excitement and full-bodied vocal liquidity in the title role is all you could ask for. John Horton Murray, an American tenor from the Met, looks awkward as Menelaus but sustains a true helden resonance that must endear him to Garsington's neighbours. Helen Field makes a strong and even plausible Aithra. And the Straussian weight of sound that the conductor Elgar Howarth extracts from Garsington's modest orchestra - without drowning his singers - is hugely impressive.

The rain, the cold, the neighbours notwithstanding, this was Garsington's finest hour (or two) to date; and it was good that the overlords of British opera were in the audience to see it - including Nicholas Payne who has scheduled gyptische Helena for the Royal Opera next year. No doubt he took some notes.

The French musical establishment in the later 19th century was largely ruled from organ-lofts where powerful figures cultivated rival followings and divided Paris into their own musico-spiritual arondissements. Saint- Saens had the Madeleine; Franck, Sainte-Clotilde; and Widor ran an empire from the mighty Saint-Sulplice, with Gounod as his backer, Messager and Faure as his junior colleagues, and a brigade of pupils from the Conservatoire including Honegger, Milhaud and Varese. The empire ran for 64 years (1870-1933) and is the subject of a concert series, Charles-Marie Widor and the Saint-Sulpice Tradition, which has just started at Westminster Cathedral under the direction of its own organist James O'Donnell.

Widor isn't fashionable now, except for the Toccata from the 5th Organ Symphony which commonly obliterates the sobs of joy after a decent wedding. But the crowds who filled the opening recital by David Briggs, organist of Gloucester Cathedral, prove that he retains a following; and what they heard was probably as close to the authentic sound of French Romantic organ music as exists in Britain. Widor's organ at Saint-Sulplice was a thundering Cavaille-Coll. Westminster Cathedral has a Willis. But it was specified with help from Marcel Dupre, Widor's successor-in-office, and it has exactly the weight and colour capabilites to do justice to this genre of full-fruit confiture. David Briggs played with extraordinary brilliance throughout a programme that included the 5th Symphony (the Toccata slower than expected: Widor apparently reduced the tempo marking as he got older) and finished with one of the most powerful improvisations I've ever witnessed. Only organists and jazz bands now seem to ascribe much value to these showbiz games of thinking-on-your-feet (for organists I suppose it's with your feet); but the tradition was strong in Widor's time, and the amazing way Briggs juggled logic with imagination was something any of those old French masters could have been proud of.

Like Westminster Cathedral, the church of St Jude's, Hampstead Garden Suburb, has a Willis organ, but it's not so grand and needs repair - hence the St Jude's Proms which have happened in this landmark Lutyens building for the past five years. I don't know why they're called Proms - no audience movement is encouraged other than towards the tea-tent at the interval - and the name suggests low-brow populism. But they actually field ambitious and exotic programmes, done with spirit; and Tuesday's opening flourish of Ethel Smythe, Korngold and Grainger, played by the Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra under Owain Arwel Hughes, turned out to be much more than the night of serious bad taste it looked on paper. The British premiere of Korngold's Baby Suite, written in honour of a newborn son, bristled with overdone parental pride but included a fascinating 1920s-European stab at jazz. The later Korngold Cello Concerto (music from the movies, soloist Robert Max) was all too briefly beautiful. And while I have reservations about Grainger's folk-song settings (bully-music, with neither the vision of Vaughan Williams nor the cleverness of Britten) I do enjoy his big arrangement of The Lost Lady Found, heartily sung here by the Joyful Company of Singers. A resourceful undertaking, these St Jude's Proms. May they long survive the restoration of the organ.

Patrick Mason's production of Don Pasquale is a survivor from 1990, and its past lives at Opera North and ENO have been smart, sharp and very funny - largely thanks to the immaculate comic timing of Andrew Shore in the title role. This time round at ENO it's a different cast and the buzz has gone. Richard Angus plays Pasquale like an arthritic Leslie Crowther: sympathetically but with no bite (and less agility) in that lugubriously dark voice. Mary Hegarty's pert Norina is pretty but does not project. And although John Hudson's Ernesto begins well, it tires quickly, tightening at the top. With died-in-action chorus work and dull conducting, this is one to miss.

'Helena': Garsington (01865 361636), Mon & Thurs. Widor: Westminster Cathedral, SW1 (0171 798 9096), to 9 Sept. 'Pasquale': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Mon & Wed.

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