13 JANUARY 1979, Page 26


Rodney Milnes

Hansel and Gretel (ENON, Leeds) Salome (Covent Garden) Der Rosenkavalier (Scottish Opera, Glasgow) In Scottish Opera's Hansel last year, the portrayal of the angels as a family of grey revenants solicitous for the lost children suggested the solidarity of victims rather more powerfully than We Come to the River, and seemed a dour gloss on this hopelessly optimistic opera. ENON's new Hansel in Leeds is more conventional at this point: a flurry of topical UFOs heralds child-angels with crowns of flickering candles stepping from a blue Gothick roodscreen: Christmas-card, maybe, but at least one from Aspreys. Patrick Libby's production adds a gloss of its own, though, and one I am still trying to work out. The Witch's cottage is a little rococo palace, and Rosina Daintymouth (Ann Howard, extremely funny) is dressed as the Marschallin. It all had a slight look of the Hermitage at Bayreuth, with the gingerbread children built into the arcades where the restaurant is now, and cage and oven placed in the wing pavilions. Was Mr Libby beating the new wave of marxist producers at their own game, or was the concept merely a caprice of the designer, Adam Pollock? Who knows. Otherwise his decor was soundly traditional, but needed much better lighting than it received on a technically hazardous first night.

The score sounded glorious in the Grand Theatre, and David Lloyd-Jones was as considerate as possible of the singers. Elizabeth Gale's delightfully bossy Gretel we have seen and loved before; the gawkily boyish, creamy-toned Hansel was Claire Powell. Gertrude needs the voice of an Ortrud and the presence of a Duse; Joan Clarkson just about got away with it. John Rawnsley's strongly sung father failed to sober up sharply enough. The Dew Fairy (Iris Saunders in glitter-dungarees) seemed to have strayed in from Colin Graham's production of Paul Bunyan, a curious and not wholly convincing effect.

Strauss conducted the premiere of Hansel, and pinched the idea of the woodwind trill to suggest unimaginable horror in Salome. If elements of the latest revival at the Garden could by magic have been combined with the best of the previous one, we would have had an outstanding performance. In 1977 a conventional Salome was matched with extraordinarily finefingered conducting by David Atherton and in Paul Crook the most interesting Herod I have seen. Is it the policy of international houses, relying on novelty as they have to, that nothing, however successful, can be repeated? This year Hildegard Behrens's princess was served up with good but conventionally noisy conducting from Zubin Mehta and a standard Herod (Richard Cassilly). Miss Behrens, whose Katya Kabanova at Edinburgh last year was so impressive, is a wonderfully musical singer. She uses her bright, clean voice sparingly (bring back Mr Atherton) but can, when absolutely necessary, summon up trumpet tone a la Welitsch. Her acting was exceptionally intelligent — childlike at the opening and conveying a horrific impression of lost innocence, one that transcended the mundane circumstances, at the close. I wonder if J.M. Barrie ever saw Salome.

Scottish Opera's Rosenkavalier was remarkable for two things. That it lasted for almost five hours was not just due to a fuller text (bravo) than either of London's mean houses offer, but to Sir Alexander Gibson's unhurried pacing. This was nice in Act One, where the prelude described more than the usual wham-barn (the Spritzmotiv uncommonly graphic) and where the words were blessedly audible. But it got slower, and slower, and slower; the Trio actually fell apart — an accident best avoided — and the singers had to keep their wide-with-surprise eyes on the pit. Nevertheless, the many subtle points in Anthony Besch's production came across, and John Stoddart's late eighteenth-century costumes remain a welcome change from tired old rococo. Catherine Wilson's Marschallin gets appropriately thin-lipped at the right moments (what a tiresome bitch this woman is), Delia Wallis's handsome Octavian is as sympathetic as possible, and Norma Burrowes's Sophie is simply sensational.

`Leupold, zum letzten Mal, wir gehn,' said Michael Langdon, his last words as Ochs which were his farewell to the operatic stage and to a career that has coincided with the post-war rebirth of British opera. Ochs has been his most famous role — he is the first non-German-speaking bass to have made an international success of it —and for all the amiable buffoonery of his interpretation, he has never lost sight of the man's essential probity. On this occasion he treated us to a water-spout bottom C and some dashed clever skating at the top. Ochs is just one of his gallery of memorable comic roles, but the performance I still treasure most is his television Claggart, a mesmerising portrayal of elemental evil. It is comforting to know that this genial artist will now be passing on his professional experience to the students of the new Opera Studio; none of us, however, would object if he decided to do a Melba.