Music review: That's the trouble with that Martinu. He never knows when to stop

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SURREAL OPERA is, I suppose, a tautology: when is the translation of life into song anything except surreal? But in pre-war Paris "surreal opera" was a considered objective of composers spellbound by the cultivated ironies and dreamlike visual non-sequiturs of Ernst, di Chirico et al. Among them was the Czech-in-exile Martinu, whose Julietta - a Magritte in sound - left its mark on opera history but not on the performing repertory. To my knowledge it hasn't had a professional staging in Britain for 20 years. So the new production at Opera North in Leeds is, if nothing else, a curiosity, as well as notable for reuniting the old ENO director-designer team of David Pountney and Stefanos Lazaridis, whose joint work isn't seen so much in Britain these days. Too expensive I expect.

They do a nice show: pity about the piece, which interests and irritates in equal measure. A parody of the traditional quest opera, it follows the pursuit of an elusive, dreamlike figure - the eponymous Julietta - by a young man, whose search ends in a town where no one has a memory and an Eternal Present reigns. After two acts of agreeably inconsequential foreplay with that theme, the setting changes - darkly and abruptly - to a Kafkaesque "Office of Dreams", where the man realises that he's been asleep all the time and is encouraged, now, to wake up. But instead, he chooses to rerun his dream, joining the twilit world of lunatics and fantasists who similarly prefer the refuge of their own worlds to the hard truths of everyone else's.

It's a fine idea in principle - developed from a play by Georges Neveux - and it would make a neat one-acter in a double bill. But three acts through a full night stretches the material. The jokes wear thin and become repetitive. And the music, as is often the case with Martinu, never knows when to stop. There's little in the way of structure: just a turnover of short encounters between members of a large cast, who relieve each other on a sort of relay basis. If the musical invention were more consistent, it wouldn't be such a chore. But most of the writing is conversationally low-key, riding a flat contour of declamation which only breaks into melodic interest when Julietta and her man make contact. At these moments, and in the closing bars of Act II, Martinu claims an honourable place in the Czech operatic succession after Smetana, Dvorak, and above all Janacek. But otherwise it's tame stuff. You could argue, perhaps, for the subtlety of the orchestration (with effects carefully tailored in this reading by conductor Steuart Bedford), and that it's a useful company piece for Opera North with so many small character roles - mostly well-taken here, alongside decent central performances from Paul Nilon, Rebecca Caine and Alan Oke. I was pleased to get the chance to see it. But I looked at my watch too often to want to see it again.

Raising Sparks sounds like a down-market trade magazine for electrical engineers. But it is in fact a festival devoted to the music of James MacMillan. Another one. MacMillan has barely been out of earshot since he made his name in 1990 with The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, the big, bold, emotionally uninhibited orchestral score that proved an audience- winner at the Proms and sent the music managers of Britain to their fax machines with requests for similar short-cuts to that great, common pursuit: contemporary music without tears. Commissions have stockpiled. He has been championed by Rostropovich; taken under the wing of the Philharmonia; given an unprecedented profile at the Edinburgh Festival; and now here he is with a series that straddles the South Bank and the Barbican. Very impressive - unless you're one of the critics who suspects the prodigality with which he meets the demand for approachable music, and hear the result as more packaging than substance.

Personally, I don't. At its best I find MacMillan's music striking, honest, sure in its convictions and endearing in the innocent, almost naive way it combines beauty with toughness. That it carries the relentless extra- musical agenda of a Scots-Romantic Christian socialist I don't mind either. His thematic interests give the listener some purchase on his work, intensifying its colouring. And if you tire of his inability to write a clarinet concerto without reference to the miracles of St Ninian or a symphony unrelated to the resurrection of Christ, then just ignore the programme notes. The music is usually strong enough to stand alone.

But I do wonder if his output isn't overtaking his invention. Last Sunday at the QEH, the Nash Ensemble played his recent piano trio, Fourteen Little Pictures, and it seemed empty by comparison with another collection of chamber-scale miniatures in the same programme, by Julian Anderson: a fascinating "divertimento" for seven instruments called Poetry Nearing Silence, which responds to a piece of word-based art by the painter Tom Phillips with elegance, wit and concentration. The sort of thrifty writing in which each bar contributes to the whole, in which the effects are sharply calculated and controlled, it made a real mark. But MacMillan's Little Pictures simply didn't.

Yet MacMillan is capable of concentrated address, and the proof was the main work in this Nash programme: Raising Sparks, the piece for voice (mezzo Jean Rigby) and mixed ensemble from which the whole festival takes its name. Based on a Hassidic creation myth, it depicts the outpouring of God's love into a clay vessel which explodes, showering the universe with scattered "sparks". The world will only be fulfilled, according the myth, when these now-hidden sparks are manifest: a long-term expectation. And MacMillan's response to all this is slow-moving, spare, intense: reminiscent of the dark but spiritually-directed music coming out of Russia at the moment. A stark contrast to his brazen parody of warhorse piano concertos, The Beserking, played by Peter Donohoe and the Philharmonia later the same day at the South Bank, its progress through sobriety to hope suited the mood of what turned out to be a quietly memorial occasion for the Nash. Their cellist of many years, Christopher van Kampen, had died a few days earlier after a long illness. A distinctive presence in British concert life for as long as I've known it, he'll be desperately missed by all of us who heard, admired and loved his playing.

On a happier note, there's some commendable up-and-coming talent in Pimlico Opera's new, touring Cosi fan tutte, which I caught on Tuesday in the enchanting little Georgian theatre at Bury St Edmunds. It's a modest show, with no chorus and not much of a set. But what it lacks in frills it makes up for in spirit, care of Wasfi Kani in the pit and Stephen Langridge on the stage. An American-graffiti take on Da Ponte's story, it owes something to Peter Sellars and more to Friends; which makes it hard to place, socially, the chambermaid Despina. But Susannah Self doesn't let that hold her back from one of the more forceful assumpions of the role I've ever seen. The girls, Anne Marchand and Alison Kettlewell, are accomplished. So is Patrick Donnelly's camera-toting Alfonso (who nips out to Snappy Snaps during the interval to have his film developed: evidence of amorous misdoings). And there are wonderful performances from both the "guys". Leigh Melrose, the young baritone whose Falstaff I admired a few weeks ago at the Walton Foundation course, needs to lighten his voice a little - it tends to roar through the note rather than deliver it cleanly - but still shows all the promise of a first-rate actor/singer. And the tenor Mark Wilde sings Ferrando with outstanding beauty and security: a voice that's surely destined to be heard in major houses.

Nigel Kennedy's return to major houses took one giant leap forward this week with a Festival Hall performance of the work which has driven his career since his landmark recording of it 13 years ago: the Elgar Violin Concerto. Given with the LPO and Roger Norrington, its stunning, wilful, occasionally rough-edged virtuosity lacked the dazzle of a Vengerov, the polish of a Perlman. But its lucid English candour was the right thing for the repertoire, and proved him to be absolutely back on form. If he'd get a decent tailor now, and back off Jimi Hendrix, he could be in danger of commanding new respect.

'Julietta': Leeds Grand Theatre (0113 222622), Tues & Thurs.