Gurrelieder, Royal Festival Hall, London<br>The King Goes Forth to France, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London<br>La fedelt&#224; premiata, Royal Academy of Music, London

Why cash in your ticket when the programme is this good, even if the ravishment is restrained?

Anna Picard
Sunday 08 March 2009 01:00

It is said that in French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch, there is no direct equivalent to the phrase "Mustn't grumble". Even in a year when middle-class rage is predicted to fill the streets with grammatically correct protest banners, the British are famously inept at complaining. So the Philharmonia Orchestra's offer to refund tickets for Esa-Pekka Salonen's Birmingham and London performances of Gurrelieder in the event of disappointment was not quite as daring as it might have sounded.

Neither, as it happens, is City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935, Salonen's first major project as the Philharmonia's principal conductor. Thirty years ago, a series incorporating two Mahler symphonies, Verklärte Nacht, Berg's Violin Concerto and Wozzeck would have been radical. In 2009, with the sharp end of the Second Viennese School restricted to ancillary chamber concerts, City of Dreams is simply an example of a conductor playing to his strengths: discipline, detail and stamina. Did anyone ask for their money back? I doubt it. The worst criticism you could level at Salonen's reading of Schoenberg's temple-throbbing love-letter to late-Romanticism is that it lacked a thrill of danger. Honed over The Tristan Project, Salonen's ability to temper and develop the most delicate and most extravagant orchestral textures is absolute. But if I'm going to be ravished – and ravishment is what Gurrelieder is all about – I'd prefer to be ravished with abandon.

This is, I'll admit, nitpicking. And it was heartening to note how little Salonen has changed the Philharmonia's sound. The strings still have that tender, soft bloom that distinguishes them from the LSO's lean perfection and the LPO's muscular intensity. In the verdant Wagnerian dusk of the prelude, the aching oriental song of the cellos, the weightless slow-dance of Tove's (Soile Isokoski) and Waldemar's (Stig Andersen) ecstatic duet, the mournful lullaby of the "Waldtaube" (Monica Groop), the testosterone roar of "The Wild Hunt", the picaresque ravings of Klaus-Narr (Andreas Conrad) and Barbara Sukova's mesmerising sprechstimme fantasy, every detail was faultlessly delineated. In a little under two hours, the 19th century ended and the 20th began: selfish, naked and noisy. Safe choice or not, should City of Dreams continue in this fashion, it will be unmissable.

Adapted from Paavo Haavikko's 1973 satire, Aulis Sallinen's absurdist opera The King Goes Forth to France has acquired a pertinence few could have predicted at its 1984 premiere. Battered by climate change, England is in hock, its economy unmoved by the Prime Minister's "very best fiscal stimulation". Icebergs are "breeding like rabbits" in the North Sea and fuel has run dry. On the shores of the frozen Channel, the King prepares for a war without point or justification, while the icons of national identity – telephone boxes and post boxes, currency and stamps, Marmite and victoria sponges, Tube maps and brown ale, policemen's helmets and Routemaster buses, cricket bats and (ouch!) newspapers – are assembled for a final closing-down sale.

Superbly designed and lit by Iannis Thavoris and Giuseppe di Iorio, Martin Lloyd-Evans's incisive Guildhall School of Music and Drama production deftly balances comedy and tragedy, while conductor Clive Timms produces a powerful account of Sallinen's sometimes arch, sometimes brutal but never boring score. Among the quartet of potential Queens, Rebecca van den Berg's sweet-toned The Nice Caroline and Raquel Luis's baleful The Caroline with the Thick Mane are outstanding, while Barnaby Rea's urbane Froissart and Derek Welton's arrogant, irrational, polymorphously perverse Prince/King are delivered with charisma and intelligence. See it, laugh and wince. Then wince some more at the hideous abuse of the English Archer (Andrew Finden), sent to war without adequate equipment.

The recent drubbing of Handel seems doubly unfair in a season when you can't move for Haydn operas. Scheduled for the same week as the Sallinen, and set in the Big Brother house, the Royal Academy of Music's production of La fedeltà premiata has all the finesse and depth of a school musical. It is pointless to accuse director Alessandro Talevi of flippancy when any passing poignancy in Haydn's arias is nullified by the vacuous plot. But Talevi should have considered the inverse ratio of the performers' ages to that of their audience. Judging from the whispers in the auditorium, few of the RAM's octogenarian supporters recognised that the four satyrs were supposed to be Russell Brand-alikes and, frankly, why should they? Despite Trevor Pinnock's vivacious conducting, a touching performance from Charlotte Stephenson as the chaste Celia and swingeing cuts to the score, La fedeltà premiata confirmed that Haydn was not a theatre animal.

City of Dreams series information at; 'The King Goes Forth ...' (0845 120 7500) to 11 Mar; 'La fedeltà premiata' (020-7873 7300) to 9 Mar

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