Russian voices rise from the rubble

The Russian State Choir sang Tavener's score like a Bolshoi Opera B-team

IF SOMEONE told you he was off to a music festival in Beirut you could fairly assume he was either bad at languages or in for a surprise. Festivals happen in Bayreuth. In Beirut they have other priorities, such as reconstructing an entire city from the devastation of a war that may have stopped in 1991 but had been going long enough - some 17 years - to generate an almost ineradicable culture of its own. About a third of the city remains in ruins, another third is a building site. Armed militia, mostly Syrian, stalk the streets. There is no public transport, no signs (if you want directions you ask a man with a machine-gun), and power-cuts black out every building every night. As festival locations go, you're better off in Edinburgh.

But the Lebanese have an odd resilience, fostered partly by the fact that they've grown accustomed to life under siege and partly by a sense of their ultimate place in history. The Lebanon was one of the great foundries of civilisation, as its ancient sites such as Byblos and Baalbek bear witness. And until the war, Baalbek housed one of the most spectacular music festivals on the world calendar - a festival which optimistically intends to reopen next year.

Meanwhile, Beirut has started one of its own, the Al Bustan Festival, based around the auditorium of a hotel rebuilt from bombed-out rubble. Far from being the hand-to-mouth affair you'd expect, the festival is astonishingly well programmed and run by a formidable Scotswoman from Shepherd's Bush, Elizabeth Thorneycroft-Smith. In the past few years she has lured an extraordinary collection of star musicians to Al Bustan, and 1996 has been no exception: Elena Prokina, Boris Berezovsky, Nikolai Demidenko and many others, following a Russian theme.

But my reason for going out last weekend was to hear the Russian State Choir premiere a substantial new commission from John Tavener in the Crusader abbey of Balamand. The Feast of Feasts was a complete Easter liturgy for choir, soloists and percussion with all the stock ingredients of Tavener's so-called primordial tradition scores: slow, cyclically repeating blocks of sound punctured by suddenly embellished orientalisms and the sort of rhythmic layering of bells you hear in Russian monasteries or Mussorgsky operas. Nothing new there. But it did promise to be a performance where, for once with Tavener, all the pieces were in place. The paradox of Tavener's music has always been its conceptual immersion in the Slavonic-spiritual past but practical dependence on the Anglican-secular present. Here was a chance to experience it in an ideal cultural context: right voices, right place. And what happened?

The Russian State Choir were at a loss. If they felt the slightest visceral connection with Tavener's idea of the Byzantine, it didn't show. They sang the score like a Bolshoi Opera B-team, with so little grasp of the idiom that I'd have written them off, had they not then sprung back to life with genuine Russian repertory they knew and understood - and were superb.

The conclusion can only be that Tavener doesn't quite belong anywhere, east or west: that he has positioned himself as an all-round outsider, an exotic curiosity. And you could say as much of the Al Bustan Festival, which will stay a curiosity, off the standard festival beat, until Beirut sorts out its infrastructure. But there's no denying what has been achieved so far for an enormously appreciative local audience (who, it should be said, cheered the Tavener). As for the future, there is undeniable potential - subject to the fragile politics of the Middle East.

The difference between Britain and the US is irony - we have it, they don't - and a sense of irony has always distinguished Stephen Sondheim from his native competitors, steering him clear of the conventionally heterosexual romantic package that keeps Broadway in business. But then along came Passion, which opened in New York last year and had its press night in London last week. Jeremy Sams's production is reviewed by Robert Butler (see page 15); but as a self-confessed Sondheimite I can't resist a comment on the piece. In a word, it's disappointing. Passion is not where Sondheim ought to be nor where his genius flourishes. The emotional contour is too flat, with nothing to prepare you for the interval curtain (in New York there was no interval). It never quite delivers what the title promises: obsession yes, passion no. I doubt it will ever rank above second division in the Sondheim catalogue.

But second-division Sondheim still outclasses anything else currently finding its way on to the lyric stage, opera or musical. And Passion comes as close as any Sondheim ever has to crossing the classification divide - in a Wagnerian rather than Verdian way. There are no high- impact "numbers" as such, but rather a tightly woven rope of what Wagner would have called unendliche Melodie that binds the score into an almost seamless whole. Leitmotific figures pass between the characters, acknowledging their individuality with subtle variations to the text. And the orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick, Sondheim's regular collaborator, are entrancing. In short, you won't find anywhere in the West End a more elegant, more intelligent or more purely beautiful show; and as Sondheim years ago grasped the truth that absolute beauty is always unsettling, it's uncomfortable as well - with a searingly committed central performance from Maria Friedman. Even if you don't leave the theatre humming the tunes, they'll haunt your dreams.

There's nothing to haunt anybody's dreams in Covent Garden's underwhelming revival of Arabella. Beset by casting problems - Bryn Terfel and Amanda Roocroft both pulled out - the Garden may not have had much choice in giving Cheryl Studer the title role, but she certainly can't sing it. And the failure is tragic. This was one of the world's most beguiling lyric voices, but now - aged only 40 - it sounds threadbare, brittle, hard, with nothing of the lustrous, girlish radiance Strauss was writing for. Wolfgang Brendel's Mandryka is vocally better but exceeds the demands of the role in dullness. Apart from Christiane Oelze's winningly sympathetic Zdenka, none of the cast is up to much. Mark Elder's conducting lifts the level a little, but Strauss never was his greatest strength. It still isn't.

`Arabella': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Thurs.

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