25 MARCH 1995, Page 40

Ope ra Salome (Royal Opera House) King Arthur (Theatre du Chatelet)

The Barber of Seville (English Touring Opera)

Best rat in town

Rupert Christiansen

Fain the first minute of the Royal Opera's new production of, Richard Strauss's Salome, it was clear that we were in the presence of a triumph, and I don't suppose many of last Saturday's audience will ever forget it. True, this is a show which has been imported from the Salzburg Festival — Jeremy Isaacs's regime cannot take full credit for its origination — but let's not carp: one way or another, this was Covent Garden's finest evening for years and an example to scoffers of what serious theatre grand opera can be. Luc Bondy's enthrallingly taut staging has stripped all IClimtian glamour and Decadent excrescence from Wilde's per- fumed text. There are no refugees from the Ballets Russes here, no Bible movie kitsch. The vast and empty shuttered hall in which the action takes place looks war-torn and bankrupt, pointing the focus harshly on the chamber drama of thwarted sexual desire — Salome's for Jokanaan, Jokanaan's for Salome, Herod's for Salome. As the cause of all the trouble, Catherine Malfitano is charmless, chilling and totally in command. Hers is not an outstandingly beautiful voice (Cheryl Studer on the DG recording sings the role with more silvery insinuation), nor does she convey the pup- pyish pouting innocence which coloured Maria Ewing's assumption. This is a cun- ning little rat of a Salome, whose dance of the seven veils becomes a brutal taunting of Herod's idiocy. She couldn't possibly be a virgin: in her encounter with Jokanaan (the astonishing Bryn Terfel, magnificently gigantic both vocally and physically) she emerges as a girl who clearly knows her way round a man and one who comes close to achieving her seduction. When she embraces the severed head, wrapped in a bloody shroud, she lies down and strokes its imagined body. As eroticism goes, it's pretty creepy. Malfitano sings the role heroically and performs with the utmost intelligence; she gives her all, and a thunderous final ovation justly rewarded her commitment.

Robin Leggate's ardent Narraboth, Anja Silja's snake of a Herodias, and Kenneth Riegel's snivelling Herod, almost pathetic in his tyranny, lead a supporting cast which is without weakness. Underpinning them was some superb conducting: Christoph von Dohnanyi is neither a brilliant nor a superficial maestro; here, as always, he takes the music austerely hard and clean. In keeping with the approach of Bondy and Malfitano, there is no room for sentiment or gloss — instead of whipping it up, he plays it for real, and the orchestra seemed with him all the way, one flawless instru- ment of his will. Phew. A performance as powerful as this makes one think that Salome is a great opera indeed.

Which is scarcely how you'd describe my next subject, though it too is some sort of masterpiece. Purcell's King Arthur is not really an opera at all — more a very bad, or hopelessly dated, play by Dryden, with musical interludes which often bear little perceptible relation to the action. Attempts have been made to rewrite the text or elim- inate it altogether, but they don't seem to work, and Graham Vick's new production for the Chatelet in Paris (it visits Covent Garden for three performances in May) bravely takes it straight. Don't expect any mention of round tables or Sir Lancelot and Guinevere: the scenario goes its own baffling way, with some ridiculous tale of a feud between Arthur and Oswald, King of Kent. Presumably there is an element of political allegory in it, but I didn't feel inclined to listen very hard, and remain none the wiser.

What keeps you going is the music. It is an absolute feast, a shower of golden rain, by turns ravishingly sensuous, witty and ele- gant, rudely boisterous. You probably know 'Fairest Isle', but there's also a divine duet for two Thamesmaidens, glorious scenes depicting enchanted forests and icy mountains, a heart-breaking trio celebrat- ing the excellence of British wool, and a pageant of the Genius of Albion which had me close to patriotic tears. There's not a dull or redundant note in it: how flat-foot- ed and long-winded Handel seems in com- parison with Purcell.

I have been disappointed by the bland- ness of some of Vick's recent work, but he has directed this King Arthur with a con- summate mixture of restrained good taste and pantomime jollity — there's no sense of over-kill or special pleading. Paul Brown's designs are basically very simple — the stage is never cramped — but there are several breathtaking coups de thecltre and you don't feel cheated of Baroque lav- ishness. Never for a second is there a hint of the niminy-piminy: William Christie con- ducts his ensemble Les Arts Florissants with all the rumbustious élan for which he is cel- ebrated (and in some benighted quarters, reviled); the singing is scrumptious.

Let other pens dwell on English Touring Opera's new production of Rossini's Bather of Seville. If I was feeling charitable I might describe it as amiable and unpretentious, but to be honest it was a pretty feeble affair, staged with a conspicuous absence of imagination by Martin Duncan and uncer- tainly conducted by Jonathan Darlington. The cast was decidedly mediocre, huffing and puffing through even the balder patch- es of the score. I have this sneaking feeling that unsophisticated audiences out in Low- estoft and Crewe — which after all, are the kind of constituencies which the company is designed to serve — will quite enjoy it. But curmudgeonly metropolitans like myself will be left wondering whether the Barber isn't a dull dog of a comic masterpiece.