Nothing magical about this Flute

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Indy Lifestyle Online
David Freeman's Opera Factory productions are what arts apologists have in mind when they talk about the Right to Fail: a catalogue of trial and error we put up with - and feel fondly for - because we know that someone, somewhere needs to cultivate the shabby margins of the opera world if those margins are ever to be extended. We also know that nestling in the coarseness of his stage style is, occasionally, a special vision of what opera can achieve as theatre; and there have been times in the past when some small piece of business in one of Freeman's shoestring- budget shows has come closer to articulating the truth of a dramatic moment than a panoply of top Cs and tiaras ever could.

But by the same token, when Freeman fails he goes down like the fleet at Scapa Flow, with all hands and a desperate sense of duty; and the new Magic Flute that opened on Wednesday at the QEH sinks like a stone, its failure predetermined by the circus concept Freeman hangs around its neck. In principle there's nothing wrong with the idea of the Flute as circus entertainment: it must have been very like that under Shikaneder at the Freihaustheater in 1791. But what Freeman asks of his circus presupposes a cast of renaissance men and women who can act, tell jokes, turn somersaults, do magic tricks, and generally dazzle an audience with vocal personality. What he actually has is a cast of modest ability, blundering through the odd half-hearted cartwheel and vast tracts of spoken dialogue like a Surrey housewives' amateur-dramatics club. The only hope would have been to cut the dialogue to the bone. That Freeman actually increases it suggests a death wish. It took all the effort I could muster to sit through the second half, reminding myself that Nicholas Kok wasn't doing a bad job with his cut-down orchestra, that the tempi were fast, and that the cast kept their clothes on. On nights like this you have to savour crumbs.

The thing to savour at the Proms this week was Simon Rattle with the CBSO, who sounded tired in Messiaen's Chronochromie but geared up to a decent Bruckner 7 and magicked themselves into a world-class ensemble the next night for as vital a Beethoven 5th Piano Concerto as I've heard in years. Touching the same inner nerve of musical intelligence that made their 1995 Beethoven symphony cycle so memorable, it featured a dream partnership of conductor and pianist: Rattle, who has come to an understanding of this repertory comparatively recently, through period performance, taking nothing for granted; and Alfred Brendel, who has lived with the notes for decades, authoritatively schooled in the Viennese tradition but curious (and well-informed) about alternatives. An altogether beautiful performance, fluid, lithe and fascinating in its every turn of phrase, thank goodness it was taken by the BBC. The symphonies were not, and it's a loss.

The place to be last weekend was Copenhagen, where the city's term of office as European Capital of Culture climaxed with two contrasting operatic events: a conventional theatre production of Carl Nielsen's Maskarade that proved tame, and a radical, sex-saturated Lulu in the Queen of Denmark's riding stables that wasn't tame at all and proclaimed a telling difference between the royal households of Britain and Scandinavia. Here they sleaze disastrously in private; there they turn it into art, and charge.

The Nielsen was a disappointment. Maskarade is effectively the Danish national opera: an endearing cross between The Bartered Bride, Die Fledermaus and Figaro which isn't Nielsen at his true, symphonic best but has infectious, open-hearted charm and works effectively on stage, as anyone who saw our own Opera North production will know. For me, it's been a lifelong ambition to see the piece done in the Copenhagen Royal Theatre, where Nielsen played second violin in the pit and where Maskarade had its premiere in 1906. And this production promised to be special: new but with traditional sets, a rallying point for all the Danish cultural capital events, and conducted by the eminent Paavo Berglund.

In the event, though, tradition stifled novelty and the whole thing became an apologetic, not especially well-sung romp. Worse still, the Royal Theatre used an old, patched-up edition of the score when every musicologist north of Watford had assumed that this would be a perfect platform for the brand new "National" edition, which is one of the most important, and impressive, long-term projects in music scholarship today.

Nielsen's currency beyond Denmark has always been limited by the poor physical quality of the performing material - with Maskarade, for example, there was no printed score, just hand-written manuscript - so the Danish government recently took action and set up a Nielsen office to sort out the mess and publish a complete edition worthy of a great composer. Maskarade is the first score off the press ... and what does the Royal Theatre do but ignore it.

The good news, though, is that the Danish National RSO and its new conductor, Ulf Schirmer, have jumped smartly into the breach, recording a National Edition Maskarade for issue by Decca next year. Meanwhile, Schirmer and the DNRSO are the force behind the riding stables Lulu; and having raised no more than two cheers for the recent Glyndebourne Lulu, which was musically superb but dramatically faint-hearted, I'm glad to report that this one spewed the guts of the piece from one side of a vast stage to the other with considerable relish. Where Glyndebourne tidied everything into sterile domesticity, the setting here was epic, gloriously sordid - like a makeshift cabaret writ large, and with an energy that fed on the discomfort of staging the piece in an enormous, emptily informal space.

The Queen of Denmark's stables are in fact a sort of warehouse with an earth floor, half of which was raised into an acting area without a curtain - so the set changes were exposed, and executed by young men in Jean-Paul Gaultier skirts and fishnet singlets who were occasionally drafted into the action as an androgynous corps de ballet. Alongside them, the American director Travis Preston drafted in a good deal else that owed little to Alban Berg, but it made fascinating theatre, amplifying the denial of reason in the text and certainly amplifying the sex - with an unforgettable scene where Dr Schon writes his farewell letter on Lulu's conspicuously naked flesh.

Constance Hauman, an American soprano, makes a more seductive femme fatale than Christine Schaefer at Glyndebourne. But the orchestra is actually the star of this production, and if Ulf Schirmer hasn't quite the dynamic precision of an Andrew Davis he certainly knows how to hold the towering structures of Berg's score together - with an authority British audiences can judge when he brings the DNRSO here on tour next month. Schirmer is a talent to watch and capable, I think, of doing for Denmark what Mariss Jansons has done for Norway: raise the stakes of its musical life.

A sad addendum to last weekend is that Danish musical life was diminished by the death, on Sunday, of Vagn Holmboe, the grand seigneur of Scandinavian composers. That in all his 86 years he never established a high profile in Britain is curious because his output was approachable - neoclassical, in direct development from the extended tonality of Carl Nielsen - and there was plenty of it: 13 symphonies and enough string quartets to lose count. If his death revives an international interest it could bring some real discoveries for listeners ready for new repertory but not quite ready for the avant-garde.

'Magic Flute': QEH (0171 960 4242), tonight & Wed.