Not quite the cream of Manchester

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O saisons, O chateaux. The new concert year has arrived and the talk is of buildings - as indeed it has been ever since the Lottery began to scatter its largesse over bricks and mortar. Even if (as music's all- wise Cassandra, Mr Norman Lebrecht, tells us) there are no orchestras or opera companies left in business by the year 2000, we'll certainly have the finest stock of empty performance venues in existence; and the very latest is Manchester's new Bridgewater Hall which opened on Wednesday. Rather equivocally.

The Bridgewater is not actually a Lottery project - the money came mostly from municipal sources in partnership with Europe - and the motivation behind it is to do for Manchester what Symphony Hall has done for Birmingham: a plain and simple case of civic rivalry. A landmark building, Bridgewater seats 2,400, is constructed (like Birmingham) on the principle of concentric skins which are flexibly connected to absorb vibration, and the auditorium is (like Birmingham) laid out on basic shoebox principles - albeit modified by a Berlin Philharmonic-like division of the back tiers into blocks of varying height. The acoustic engineers are Arups, who did the new Glyndebourne and are also very obviously out to challenge Birmingham (by general consent the best-sounding hall in Britain). And for a trump card, there's an organ (Birmingham merely has space for one), built by the Danish firm of Marcussen and the mightiest beast of its kind to be installed in Britain this century.

But there, I'm afraid, favourable comparisons stop, because the success story of Birmingham has largely been written by one man - Simon Rattle - of whom Manchester has no equivalent. This hall will house three orchestras: the BBC Philharmonic (in good shape these days under its French-repertoire- specialist conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier), the small-scale Manchester Camerata, and the Halle (the principal tenant, which gave the opening concert with its MD Kent Nagano).

Now the Halle is a venerable institution, the oldest orchestra in Britain and part of the very fabric of Mancunian life, but susceptible to ups and downs with a vengeance. The ups were Hans Richter at the turn of the century and John Barbirolli from the 1940s to the 1960s. The downs came in between and after, sharpened by financial problems and unarrested by the past two years with Kent Nagano. Nagano seemed like an inspired appointment: young, dynamic, with a track record for opera projects in France that transferred to disc and won awards. But in Manchester it hasn't worked. There have been problems with the Halle management, which found Nagano an expensive luxury; and sharing a patch with Tortelier, he hasn't been able to indulge his instinct for French repertory as he'd have liked. Meanwhile, money problems have continued; and whatever the new hall does for morale, it does nothing to balance the books because the rent will be considerably more than the Free Trade Hall charged - odd when you consider that the Halle has a half-stake in the company that runs the new building. But then the company will operate as a commercial concern, so it has to make money. Personally, I wouldn't count on its ability to maintain the serious programming stance it has declared. In all the circumstances, you can understand why the opening wasn't quite the deal it might have been: peculiarly downbeat, with no royalty beyond the cast of Coronation Street, and a standard of performance that was disappointingly lacklustre.

Starting with a feeble account of Elgar's extended choral version of the National Anthem, it stumbled into a new piece by George Benjamin that the chorus couldn't sing, the orchestra had problems playing, and was anyway bizarrely inappropriate to a celebration. Called Sometime Voices, it set Caliban's hymn to the music of the spheres in The Tempest, with a solo baritone as Caliban and the chorus as attendant spirits haloing him in non-narrative sound. Given a half-decent performance I suspect one would discover that the writing was sensitive and intelligent. But proceeding at a slow pace from a pppp start, it takes time to gather momentum; and as it only lasts 10 minutes, that's a problem. In any event, the performance was not half-decent, apart from William Dazely's affirmative solo singing; the orchestra scratched around like chickens in a coop, and the chorus were too terrified to come in on cue.

After that came the slowest and scruffiest Enigma Variations I've heard in ages; and although things perked up after the interval with Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (soloist Tom Allen), no one could call the orchestral playing or choral singing distinguished. That this was the best the Halle could do on such a night is disturbing and a cause for sadness. It suggests that the hall's future as a centre of excellence rests mainly with the BBC Philharmonic, which makes its debut there tonight with Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts.

In one critical respect the BBC Phil and Halle share - for the time being at least - a common difficulty. The acoustic. The Bridgewater's publicity material describes it as "warm reverberant sound properly balanced with clarity", but that's wishful thinking. It is hard, bright, cold, unflatteringly raw, and in a way that distances smaller ensemble or solo signals. The separated brass in Belshazzar could have been playing in a village hall across the road, so unimmediate was the sound. However attractive the Bridgewater is in other respects - and there's a lot to be said for its appearance - it stands or falls by the acoustic; and that clearly needs adjustment.

La Traviata is an opera so steeped in the cult of disease - as romantic metaphor and moral agent - that you could hardly expect someone like Jonathan Miller not to take a clinical interest in the death scene; and yes, Act III is the undoubted focus of his new ENO production, with Violetta's terminal moments acutely diagnosed, and an unsentimental truth of observation that delivers what 19th-century medicine called the Spes phthisica, the moment of delusory rallying, without the absurd sensationalism of the current Covent Garden staging. Like a good invalid who knows she had it coming, the lady sticks to her bed - no lap of honour to consume her dying energies - and Rosa Mannion does it beautifully, with a synthesis of taste and commitment that makes for one of the best Traviata Act IIIs I've ever seen. She also sings superbly, with a versatility of colouring that takes the voice from bright, coquettish clarity through radiant warmth to pale, consumptive tissue-texture with complete conviction. After memorable showings in the past at ENO, as Gilda and the Countess, this outstanding Violetta marks her unequivocal arrival in the premiere league of young sopranos; and she gets good support from John Hudson's strong if stiff, sometimes rather congealed, Alfredo and Christopher Robertson's (much the same) Germont. The American conductor Stephen Mercurio makes his UK debut and, after an effortfully slow Act I, eases into an impressive, well-shaped reading.

But that said, it is a dourly severe staging with dull sets (Bernard Culshaw) and the atmospheric grain of Ibsen's Oslo rather than of Haussmann's Paris. Even I give better parties than the phlegmy heroine's in Act I; and on a blameless life.

Bridgewater Hall: 0161 907 9000. 'Traviata': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), continues Tues & Thurs.

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