The Critics: The bride wore an outfit from Habitat

Royal Opera: The Bartered Bride Sadler's Wells, EC1 LSO: Elgar 2nd Symphony, CelloConcerto Barbican, EC2 Elgar on Film Barbican, EC2 European Union Baroque Orchestra Banqueting Hall, SW1

Michael White
Sunday 13 December 1998 01:02

Smetana's bride is being bartered everywhere you look or listen these days. She was sold off only a few months ago at Opera North, very successfully. Next year she's up for grabs at Glyndebourne. And since Thursday, she's been on the market at the brand-new, still unfinished Sadler's Wells, opening what was to have been the Royal Opera's 1998-1999 season there. That "season" looks more like a token visit now, with nothing beyond The Bartered Bride and The Golden Cockerel in a joint run that ends mid-January. After that, there's nothing until Covent Garden opens next December.

With the Royal Opera, though, you never know from one week to the next what's happening. Its future is to be determined (yet again) on Tuesday, when the Arts Council decides whether or not to play the 7th Cavalry. If it does, something may yet be salvaged for next year - alongside the company's relationship with Bernard Haitink. Contrary to what you may have read in recent weeks, Haitink has not resigned: he merely "tendered his resignation", then asked for it to be put "on hold". As things stand, he is still the music director, contracted until 2002.

And it was very much as music director that he appeared on Thursday in the Sadler's Wells pit to conduct The Bartered Bride - complete with a hand-wringing note from the new boss, Michael Kaiser, in the programme book, to thank "our much-loved" BH for still being there. Well yes, Haitink is much-loved; and the audience response on Thursday was enthusiastic. But for me, his Bride was not especially distinguished. The dances have no kick; and in the equivocal acoustic of the new theatre, the strings sound scrawny. Across the footlights, it's well-sung but feebly staged - a disappointment for Francesca Zambello, whose track record in gutsy chorus shows promised more. In this show, Zambello has gone for naivety: a slightly cleaner, Habitat-pine version of conventional folk cuteness. But it's sloppy, the routines are tired, and the jokes are thin.

Only the voices are pleasing, with some attractive singing from Ian Bostridge (touching as the idiot Vanek), Soile Isokoski (whose Marenka has a sweet if slightly bottled tone), Franz Hawlata (a wily Kecal) and Jorma Silvasti (with no stage sense but an engaging lyric fluency as Jenik). Otherwise, the Opera North Bride wins hands down: it's sharper, smarter, funnier, and better executed.

If these are busy times for Smetana enthusiasts, they've been even busier for Elgarians since the premiere of the "realised" 3rd Symphony sketches. As massaged into life by Anthony Payne, those pieces opened up a new perspective on the old man as a closet radical in his supposedly declining years: far from sitting comfortably on his Edwardian laurels, he was confronting the immediate prospect of a new, spare, modern sound-world. The result has been a battery of Elgar festivals this year, based round the 3rd and buoyant with revisionist fervour. There was one in Bristol that I wrote about two months ago. And now there's another at the Barbican, presented by the LSO under Colin Davis.

Last Sunday's instalment, with the 2nd Symphony and the Cello Concerto, should have been among its highlights. But it didn't quite come off. The Symphony was strong and forthright, with a freshness that was clearly the determining objective. And the Cello Concerto boasted Heinrich Schiff: a fine, decisive player with imaginative phrasing, full, fat tone, and similarly out to prove the "modern" credentials of the score. He played it clean, without the slobbering portamenti of Edwardian performance practice. But he also, at the outset, played it slow, without the sense of forward movement that gives meaning to Elgar's marking "nobilmente". As I read that opening movement, its emotion is a grief carried with dignity and quiet endurance. Schiff's grief was too much a thing of spaced- out stasis. And when he snapped into the sudden focused energy the score dictates, he did it so precipitously that Davis (always one for slow speeds) lost him. More than once.

But there was more than music to this Elgar Festival on Sunday, and the best of it was the afternoon of Elgar on film that ran in the Barbican cinemas. In truth, there isn't much Elgar on film that survives: only a couple of Pathe newsreels and some home-movie footage from 1929 and 1932. But these few items are gems, and definitive expressions of the conflict between Elgar's public and private personae. On the one hand, you see him opening the new Abbey Road recording studios (subsequently to be annexed by the Beatles) with a rousing burst of "Land of Hope and Glory". "Try to play it as though you've never heard it before," he tells the orchestra through his moustaches. Then, on the home movie, you see him feeding the affectionate rabble of dogs that were his constant companions after the death of his wife. And it's there, with blinding clarity, that you find the author of the 3rd Symphony: an oddly young-old man whose days as the voice of Edwardian imperialism are long gone.

I should add that even at the height of the flag-waving, Elgar was a distinctly reluctant voice of imperialism. He wasn't responsible for the "Hope and Glory" text that attached to the 1st Pomp and Circumstance March, and he always felt equivocally about it. The tune was his meal ticket, but bought at a price he regretted when it became the anthem that carried thousands to their death in 1914.

And that point was forcefully advanced in another archive film shown at the Barbican last Sunday: not a film of Elgar but one about him, made in 1962 for television by Ken Russell. Russell in his time has been responsible for some regrettable misdeeds on stage and screen. But in that Sixties black-and-white film he devised a classic, matching images to music with a virtuosity that few films about composers have ever equalled. It fixed the image of Elgar for a generation of concert-goers. And - along with Jacqueline du Pre's readings of the Cello Concerto, which came shortly after - it helped sustain Elgar's reputation at a time when other- wise he seemed to have lost the public ear.

Forty years on, the public ear is all for period performance, with more demand than supply. The universe of period players is comparatively small - which is why you see the same faces circulating between different ensembles - and this is at least partly the consequence of the small number of teaching establishments equipped to provide substantial period-style experience. Hence the importance of the European Union Baroque Orchestra, which every year provides some 25 young instrumentalists, straight from college, with a six-month train-as-you-play tour under the direction of a well-known name. On Wednesday, the 1998 tour arrived in London for a concert at the Banqueting House, Whitehall under Roy Goodman. And it was superb: a programme of Handel, Vivaldi and Bach with all the urgency, vitality and (no small issue) wit of an accomplished, premier-division band. The soloist was Catherine Bott, spectacularly fluent with that endearing potential for mischief she always carries with her on the platform; and the result was worlds away from the wallpaper culture that conditions so much baroque presentation. All credit to the various political and commercial organisations that support this venture. May their cheques keep coming.

'The Bartered Bride': Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0171 863 8000), in rep to 14 January.

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