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What once was lost

WHEN the BBC commissions a new opera, Covent Garden stages it, and the result turns out to be half-decent, it should be a cause for celebration. I'd be celebrating Alexander Goehr's Arianna, which has just opened at the Garden and is considerably more than half-decent, but for two nagging questions. One is how anyone could have imagined Covent Garden to be an appropriate venue for the piece. The other is how anyone could have thought it appropriate to be commissioned (as it was) for British Music Year.

Taking the nationalistic point first, Goehr is, of course, a distinguished British composerwith at least two previous operas - depending on how you define opera - to his credit. The second of them, Behold the Sun, is still waiting for a London production; the Garden might have given that a chance before they looked at something new.

But then the newness of Arianna is itself equivocal. The title page of the score describes it as "a lost opera by Claudio Monteverdi, composed again by Alexander Goehr" - those words "composed again" carry a weight of meaning. In a sense all Monteverdi operas demand recomposition, because they survive in fragmentary terms that need some husbanding to be fit for the stage. This husbanding varies from scrupulous, scholarly realisations to free, fantasy enlargements, such as Hans Werner Henze's reworking of Il Ritorno d'Ulisse. But Arianna makes special demands in that nothing of the score survives at all - except for the heroine's famous "Lament", which serves as a precedent for all subsequent operatic abandonate through to Purcell's Dido and beyond, and is a set-piece of such striking quality that it makes the loss of everything around it peculiarly galling. Contemporary accounts suggest that Arianna may have been the most remarkable of Monteverdi's operas. And its libretto, by the father of librettists, Rinuccini, is no mean achievement either.

So ... Goehr has taken the music-less libretto (in the original Italian) and recomposed it, using a two-step process that starts with an imagined form of Monteverdi's original and then develops it into 20th-century language. But the development is curiously restrained. Knowing how Goehr has dealt with "found" objects from the past in his previous work, I was surprised by quite how Monteverdian Arianna sounds: largely a matter of early 17th-century parlar cantando gently undulating against a kind of displaced tonality that blurs but never obliterates its outlines. Imagine Francis Bacon faking a Velasquez in acrylic - here the sound equivalent of acrylic is a 16-piece pseudo-baroque band formed from modern instruments, including saxophone and sampler keyboard.

As an exercise in musical dexterity all this is fascinating: meticulously crafted and with a refined sense of the aesthetic that produces some very beautiful sounds. It isn't difficult to follow, either. But as a theatre score that runs for two hours, 10 minutes without a break I'm not so sure. The dramatic contour of the writing is fairly flat, rising to a necessary peak at the "Lament" - where Goehr pulls out the real Monteverdi with the notes encased, as it were, in quotation marks - but withering to nothing at the end. It takes a wealth of cute ingenuity from the director, Francesca Zambello, and designer, Alison Chitty, to compensate and keep things visually alive: as, in fairness, they usually are. This is a clean, spare, ruthlessly good-looking show.

It also has a good cast, led by the entrancing American mezzo Susan Graham (last seen here as Cherubin and Dorabella, and one of the Garden's most fortuitous recent discoveries) with fine support from Anna Maria Panzarella and Gidon Saks (more newcomers and hugely promising). But the fact remains that it's happening in the wrong place. Arianna needs a smaller, less con- ventional performance space than Covent Garden. Lightly scored, and with its little band half-buried in a hole on stage, it sounded distant, thin and underweight. And, frankly, the members of the ROH orchestra co- opted into the band weren't up to the exposure. Ivor Bolton, conducting, got his period-conscious best from them (and in a way that you could honestly say illuminated the tension between ancient and modern), but it was a struggle. To give the piece its due, I'd like to see it restaged with the same cast, same conductor and director, but in a black box like the Glasgow Tramway and with players from the London Sinfonietta. Then we'd know how viable it was.

On Thursday, Opera North in Leeds opened a new production of Hamlet - or, more properly, 'Amlet, since this is the French grand-operatic bowdlerisation by Ambroise Thomas, complete with 'appy ending. "Vive le roi Hamlet" rejoice the chorus as their prince, insensitive to the demands of Shakespeare, niftily avoids Laertes' sword, despatches Claudius, and lives to face a new day as the curtain falls.

It doesn't have to be like this: when Hamlet first played at Covent Garden in 1869, the true Elizabethan pile-of-corpses ending was tacked on in deference to the literary sensibilities of English audiences. But Opera North sticks to Thomas's original intentions: not that there is actually anything very original about this piece, which slavishly observes the conventions of its genre and so thinks nothing of interrupting the dramatic trajectory between the warning of the ghost and the drowning of Ophelia with a jolly little divertissement for the corps de ballet.

Given such material, the best thing a modern director can do is keep Shakespeare out of it as far as possible. That's what David McVicar does in Leeds. He exiles the action to the contrived reality of Theatre: something that looks like a BBC location-shoot, where you're never quite sure on which side of the footlights events are taking place. The court of Elsinore becomes a luvvies' chorus, putting back the ham in Hamlet; while the grave-diggers become a pair of Brechtian facilitators, shifting props and sweeping down the stage. On the whole it works extremely well, shored up by two remarkable central performances. Rebecca Caine, a young Canadian soprano with a creamily seductive coloratura, is a glorious Ophelia, filling out the sectionalised acreage of her mad scene with command- ing stature. And Anthony Michaels-Moore's Hamlet is quite simply a performance that could hold its own on any opera stage in the world. Hamlet is above all a baritone prize- piece; Michaels-Moore takes it with laurels.

Whether this now rare opera amounts to much more than a baritonal high is another matter. For all the eloquence of Oliver von Dohnanyi's conducting, I'm not convinced that Hamlet is more than exquisitely second-rate. But it is exquisite, and enjoyable, and certainly worth seeing. Once.

`Arianna': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Thurs; `Hamlet': Leeds Opera North (0113 245 9351), Mon & Wed.