MUSIC
WHEN Glyndebourne first announced a production of Lulu, it was like a small boy telling his parents he had plans to take up smoking. There was a swagger of defiance in the tone, a sense of try-this-one-for- size. And Alban Berg's abrasively seductive opera is undoubtedly a grown- up piece: a staged encyclopaedia of depravity and moral mayhem, and hard music - very different from the corporate-hospitality fare that Glyndebourne used to sell. But then things have changed in the home of country-house opera. Berg, Birtwistle, unknown Handel ... it all signifies a quantum leap in seriousness of purpose; and in the case of this new Lulu it has been magnificently vindicated, musically at least. Andrew Davis, who conducts, has the measure of Berg's complex score (the first ever to sustain serial principles of composition to full-scale operatic length), as we knew from his concert performance with the BBCSO last year. But with the London Philharmonic in the pit the stakes are higher and the sound incomparable: tough but loving. With the clarity of Boulez, warmth of Tate and vigour of Dohnanyi, Davis has the unique selling points of all the main interpreters of Lulu and surpasses them in quality. I can't believe that anyone alive could do it better.

What a pity, then, that the production is so tame, anaesthetised by Graham Vick into something guaranteed not to disturb the appetites of Glyndebourne picnickers en fete. In his defence, I understand what he has tried to do. Conventionally, Lulu is a lurid object of desire, picking her way through discarded, dead husbands until she in turn becomes the victim of their alter egos and is killed by Jack the Ripper. But throughout her Rake-like rise and fall it could be argued that she sustains a kind of innocence, shored up by disengagement from the characters that swarm around her - and that's the point Vick seems to stress. His Lulu is a child, a streetwise bit of teenage jail-bait who begins the opera posing for her portrait not in the pierrot costume Berg envisaged but a baggy sweatshirt and a pair of jeans; and given that approach, the American coloratura soprano Christine Schafer is perfectly cast: she looks younger than the "15-year-old girl" who turns up in Act III; she pouts beautifully, with a nice line in chilling detachment; she projects the sort of innocence-involuntarily-begetting-evil that makes fortunes in Hollywood; and she can sing, combining the youthful appearance and vocal maturity one vainly hopes for in many a Madam Butterfly. Schafer sang Lulu last year at Salzburg, and she lives up to the reports of a fine, incisive brilliance of sound, with a good top.

But in pursuing this big idea of disengagement, Vick has allowed the darkness of the piece to slip through his fingers - literally, in that his lighting is insensitively bright, and figuratively, in that he has diluted the manic, expressionist tone of the piece into late-20th-century ordinariness. Berg's libretto, taken from two plays by Frank Wedekind, is early-20th-century Berlin burlesque: the style that Brecht and Weill perfected, with grotesquely comic-strip delivery. Spiced by cabaret sex but fuelled by moral purpose. Whatever realism survives, the mix is cruelly heightened. Here at Glyndebourne, though, the characters are guys-next-door (with Jack the Ripper the genial, everyday inhabitant of a Gloucester back street) and there's no sex at all. Geschwitz's lesbian infatuation with Lulu is quite obviously platonic. And the set - which looks like the non-denominational meeting house of a red-brick university: anonymously, inoffensively bland - conveys nothing beyond the vague suggestion (with a concentric circle of floor revolves) that this is a vortex, a Lulu-wake, into which the characters get sucked. It certainly doesn't serve the text - with the consequence that some of the best jokes are thrown away. In the Feydeau-farce scene where Lulu's many lovers scatter at the arrival of her (third) husband, Geschwitz is meant to hide behind a fire-screen, which is why Dr Schon, discovering her, says: "I suppose you came down the chimney!" When there's no fireplace and she has to hide under the stairs, it isn't funny.

But if Vick has failed to deliver the piece, he has at least coaxed some superb individual performances from his cast. There's not a weak link. Norman Bailey's grubby Schigolch, Donald Maxwell's nerdish Athlete, David Kuebler's desperate Alwa, Wolfgang Schone's helden Dr Schon and Kathryn Harries's sympathetic Geschwitz are all beautifully observed and memorable - within the terms the production sets. I just wish its terms were more unreasonable.

London has heard some memorable new music in the past week or so, notably James MacMillan's LSO commission The World's Ransoming which premiered at the Barbican under Kent Nagano. A quasi-concerto for cor anglais and orchestra, it has the religious programme MacMillan's scores usually carry these days; and much as I admire them - there's no one of his generation with a surer, more direct or more communicative gift - I do find the agenda that comes with the music a mite uncomfortable. He seems never to be content with being a composer: it has to be a Scottish composer, a Socialist composer, a Catholic composer, with the music as a platform for some extra-musical idea. But then MacMillan's agendas do energise his writing, which is why his Catholic works never wallow in Holy Minimalism. Where John Tavener sinks contemplatively to his knees, MacMillan stands up and is counted: an angry young man in the pulpit. The World's Ransoming is strong stuff, fiercely imagined and ending on a stark percussive figure which I was foolish enough to describe on a radio show straight after the premiere as naff. It isn't, and I've changed my mind. A critic's privilege.

I haven't changed my mind about Param Vir's operatic double-bill Snatched by Gods and Broken Strings, which played four years ago in the Munich Biennale and has just had its British premiere at the Almeida Theatre in Islington. It struck me then as a hugely accomplished achievement, crossing cultural divides as the musically European work of an ideologically Indian composer, and it still does in this new production by David Farr. Vir works within the expansive time-unconsciousness of the East, so the pace is slow; but he has a Britten-like grasp of how to tell a story in music and how to make ravishing sounds from a small orchestra - in this case the London Sinfonietta under Markus Stenz. The passivity with which the music accepts the violent outcome of the first piece is disturbing but, I suppose, oriental.

The songs of Flanders and Swann drew much of their humour from a very English acceptance of domestic trauma that probably had something to do with Flanders being in a wheelchair and Swann being a Quaker. They were masters of diffident understatement. I'll always remember Donald Swann ringing me to say he had "a spot of cancer", the illness from which he eventually died. But the songs have not died, and last weekend in Winchester saw a public recital of them by someone Swann thought was the next best F&S interpreter to F&S themselves: one Michael Mates, MP for Hampshire East. I hesitate to include this in a column devoted to High Art, but Mates is rather good, bizarrely like the real thing (his pianist, William Godfree, quite disarmingly like Swann), and with surprising vocal stamina: we got all the F&S favourites except the "Song of Patriotic Prejudice" whose references to exploding policemen would have been impolitic for a former Northern Ireland minister. The F&S partnership wasn't long- lived: it broke up because Swann felt that he should be writing more substantial music. Had he still been with us, this Winchester concert might just have persuaded him that genius can reside in minutiae.

'Lulu': Glyndebourne (01273 813813), Wed & Sat, and continuing in rep to 19 Aug. In addition, the production will be semi-staged as a Prom: Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), 23 Aug.

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