The Critics: A noble sprite, if somewhat old

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LAST YEAR, the playwright Michael Wilcox published a monograph on Britten's operas (Absolute Press, pounds 6.99), which asked you to believe that almost every detail in them carried some kind of encoded homosexual message. This entertaining idea ignored the fact that opera involves librettists as well as composers, and Britten's librettists were occasionally straight.

But Britten did, broadly, use his operas as a public platform for private, sexual preoccupations; and Wilcox is right to argue that the relationship between Oberon and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the fulfilment of what nearly happens between Peter Quint and Miles in The Turn of the Screw. Like so many other Britten scores, the Dream is saturated with ambiguously innocent and/or subversive fantasies about men and boys. It follows from this, then, that Puck has to be a boy.

But there's a perverse tendency these days to cast Puck (who speaks rather than sings) as a mature man. And on Tuesday at the Barbican he was positively pensionable, as played by the former Dr Who, Sylvester McCoy. The climax of a concert series by Richard Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia, based on musical responses to the story of the Dream, it was a semi-staging, and supremely good, with a fine cast which featured many of the singers from Hickox's Virgin Classics recording of a couple of years ago. James Bowman, Lillian Watson, Donald Maxwell and Pamela Helen Stephen were in handsome voice. The CLS played with confidence; Hickox conducted with complete authority. And the clarity of the reading made a strong argument for this piece always to be done with CLS-type chamber forces, as opposed to the full symphonic band it normally gets. If only Puck had seen fewer birthdays, it would have been a classic night.

Kathleen Battle sees her 50th birthday this year, entering what can be a difficult time for the sort of light-lyric, soubrettish voice which has sustained her career so far. Those pert young operatic chambermaids and peasant-girls come with a sell-by date, which winsome smiles and coy, pursed lips won't camouflage indefinitely.

Winsome affectations, however, are ingrained into Battle's being. She makes no effort to get rid of them - not even in the songs by Dowland and Purcell that began her celebrity recital at the Barbican on Wednesday. To say she didn't quite meet the stylistic dictates of the repertory would be an understatement. It was like a high-pitched parody of Eartha Kitt: all posturing and preening through distorted vowels and lazily dropped consonants. Utter falsehood. The recital platform is a test of truth in art. And Battle failed.

But there was one point in the programme at which the falseness dropped - a group of Negro spirituals of tender beauty. In that moment it seemed that the whole horrible act was actually a mask hiding a very fragile artist, possibly in crisis. If I'm right, it would account for her bizarre platform behaviour, her imperious gestures of instruction to the pianist (Roger Vignoles), her false starts, memory lapses and uneasy intonation. But whatever the reason, this recital made a sorry spectacle: a once-delightful voice grotesquely misapplied. Battle's fans may well forgive her. But if I were her, I'd take a long rest, and some tough advice.

Lesley Garrett was another light, soubrettish soprano I heard in recital this week, but not on home soil. I was in Barbados, with the English losing at cricket but raising a flag for expatriate cultural values in the form of something called the Holders Season: an exotic variant on the stately-home opera phenomenon which has become a key feature of the summer music calendar. Sponsored by a Caribbean airline, BWIA, it takes place on the plantation estate of a benevolently wealthy Englishman called Johnnie Kidd. The setting is pure magic, fringed by spotlit palm trees swaying in the breeze that wafts in from the ocean. Tree-frogs chirp along enchantingly with the performances; the atmosphere is welcoming, unstuffily relaxed; and I enjoyed everything about it - except, alas, the operas that formed the core programme, grimly knocked together by the lamentable (British) Travelling Opera Company. Their Carmen was no worse than dull. But their Barber of Seville (relocated to a Fawlty Towers hotel, complete with Spanish waiter) hit the depths - a true disaster, engineered by one man, Peter Knapp, who takes it on himself to run the company, direct the shows, rewrite their narratives, and give himself the star roles. Like Battle, he could do with some advice.

As for Lesley Garrett, I can't claim to love her voice: it's not a world- class instrument, and the tone is thin and forced. But she's a trouper. She can entertain. And her endearing down-to-earthness had the Holders audience eating from her hand in what turned out to be an awesomely wide-ranging programme: Dvorak to Jerome Kern.

The abiding interest of Holders, though, is what it offers to the future. There's virtually no "serious" musical life in the Caribbean: no music faculty at the University of the West Indies, no music library, even. The culture is calypso, sport and sugar cane; and accordingly, this part of the world breeds hardly any classical musicians. At one of the Holders events, I found myself sitting next to the Barbados music critic (there is only one) and I asked him when he'd last seen an opera. He hadn't. Ever.

So Holders is opening doors for an entire community. And whatever you might read about its attraction for island-hopping glitterati in Hello!, it does see itself as a community initiative. Last year it unearthed the fragments of an 18th-century opera on a Caribbean slave theme, Inkle and Yariko by Samuel Arnold, and commissioned the composer Roxana Panufnik to realise the score, with vernacular insertions from the local reggae king Eddie Grant. And this year the Inkle idea has been taken up again, reworking Arnold's score into something closer to a musical, to broaden its appeal. The work-in-progress will be premiered tonight (the Holders Season runs until tomorrow) and I hope it works, because it strikes me as a brave and imaginative attempt to cross a very deep cultural divide.

Fortunately, the Barbados government thinks so too. Holders has been running for six years now, and has always been a private venture. But next year the Barbados Tourist Authority have promised a more active involvement. With luck, that will mean better performing circumstances, and the wherewithal to hire in better acts than Travelling Opera. So long as the vision and determination that set up this unlikely project in the first place holds good, I'm sure that quality will come. It just needs time.

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