THE CRITICS MUSIC: Scandal, subterfuge and delight in Italy

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Indy Lifestyle Online
One of the pleasures of opera-going in Italy is to be reminded that however bad things are over here, it's worse over there. Of the 70- odd Italian lyric houses, more than half are currently embroiled in politico- financial scandals to a degree that renders Covent Garden's mishaps (as- seen-on-TV) insignificant. The Rome Opera, for example, sacked its last intendant for running up a deficit of nearly pounds 40m (yes, that is pounds, not lire); his successor has since resigned, twice, over other matters; and Peter Hall walked out of the Fidelio he was directing there last month, on the grounds that the working conditions were intolerable. Colin Davis has been having not dissimilar problems trying to conduct Les Troyens at La Scala. And people are now asking awkward questions about the burning down of the Fenice - remembering that the opera house at Bari was torched not so long ago, with its own management the prime suspect.

But life does go on somehow in these places, albeit wearied by the burden of the problems, and the Teatro Comunale in Florence has been putting on as brave a face as it can manage this week for the start of the Maggio Musicale: the annual Florentine festival which is traditionally the largest, and costliest, in Italy. Its 1996 programme is, as always, starry; and the stars include the British stage directors Graham Vick (whose new Lucia di Lammermoor opens at the Comunale in a fortnight) and Jonathan Miller, who have both worked in Florence before.

Ten years ago Miller touched the nerve of the Maggio with a Tosca of such political sensitivity that the opera house was encircled by armed police on the opening night. I was there, and I remember it. But I can't believe his new Idomeneo will stir comparable passions, because it's frankly tame stuff. Idomeneo is always an opera that needs special advocacy: not for its music, which is as sublime as any later Mozart score, but for its theatre, which proceeds with the gravity of old-school opera seria enlivened only by set-piece pantomimes involving sea monsters and angry gods. In Miller's staging you don't even get that. It happens abstemiously on a neutral set (co-designed by Miller himself) that looks like one of those Georgio de Chirico piazzas, emptily waiting for something to happen. If only it did. All you get in this production is disengaged standing and singing, from voices that are agreeable (Deon van der Walt, Nuccia Focile, Hillevi Martinpelto) but not remarkable or wholly up to the demands of the coloratura. Semyon Bychkov has certain strengths but Mozart isn't one, and he conducts this most linearly contiguous of number-operas with no real sense of line. Or drama. Or urgency.

Fortunately for the Maggio, there is better news to tell of Richard Strauss's Elektra, another example of the Ancient Greek theme running through this year's festival and a neat partner to Idomeneo in that its heroine appears in both operas. It comes in a high-glamour production at the Comunale, shared with the Salzburg Festival, that reads like the musical equivalent of a Fortnum & Mason hamper. The casting - Deborah Polaski, Marjana Lipovsek, Karita Mattila, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the pit - is unashamed luxury. The performance is superb. It comes with impact and musicianship, scale and particularity - virtues which tend mostly to be alternative rather than cumulative - and Lev Dodin's production is sparely but grandly housed in the huge black space of what looks like a derelict stadium. A portentous place for ceremonial observance, and for Clytemnestra to perform her sacrifices.

The only problem with all this is that the voices are enhanced (a polite word for amplified) with a sustaining halo of resonance like an echo. The reason, presumably, is that Dodin wants to reinforce the idea of everything happening in a vast arena space, while Abbado is happy to redress the usually overwhelming odds against the singers in their battle against Strauss's massive orchestration. Certainly, the singers do come into sharp focus here, and are able to sing with uncommon musicality as a result. Freed from the strain of merely being heard, Karita Mattila's Chrysothemis is the paradigm of robustly girlish innocence you'd find in a South Downs prep school - beautifully done - while Deborah Polaski delivers the least mannered, most nearly sane (and consequently most disturbing) Elektra I've ever heard. It is a treat to hear it: every note, unforced and pure.

But amplification isn't something a major opera house can give its audience without come-back. It disturbs accustomed balances and short-changes anyone who associates the excitement of a "hard-sing" like Elektra with the physicality of vocal struggle. There were boos among the cheers the night I went. But not from me. Wired up or down, this was a Rolls-Royce of a show, magnificently done.

The Royal Philharmonic Society is one of the world's most venerable music organisations (it commissioned Beethoven's 9th Symphony), and on Wednesday it gave its annual awards dinner at the Dorchester Hotel. I have to declare an interest here as one of the (many) judges, but these awards do provide an interesting insiders' view of what has been achieved in Britain through the past year, and a sensitive one, if not exactly barometric. For example, the opera award went to Esa-Pekka Salonen for the musical (as opposed to dramatic!) qualities of Mathis der Maler at Covent Garden; the chamber- scale composition award to Brian Ferneyhough; and the singing award to Anthony Michaels-Moore, who is currently proving himself a refined but powerful Scarpia in the well-cast and vigorously conducted Tosca revival at Covent Garden. But the most interesting of all the RPS awards is often the debut prize, which this year went to Ian Bostridge: an articulate, intelligent, extremely English lyric tenor who can only be on the threshold of a major career.

As is Daniel Harding, the 20-year-old conductor who took the RPS debut award in 1995. Last week he conducted the LSO in a Barbican concert of Britten, Takemitsu and Bartok, and it left no doubt that this is an outstanding talent. It's still developing: his gestures tend to be too big, too sweeping to grasp details of ensemble with precision, and his colouring of the Takemitsu was a little brash. But he has all the urgency, directness and sheer musical ingenuousness of his mentor Simon Rattle. There's no faking. And I know of no conductor of his age (or anything approaching it) to match him in communication and control. He is a true phenomenon, and an exciting prospect.

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