Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Così fan tutte, 22 July 2007

Così fan tutte, Royal Opera, Sunday 22 July 2007

Matthew Polenzani - Ferrando
Lorenzo Regazzo - Guglielmo
Sir Thomas Allen - Don Alfonso
Dorothea Röschmann - Fiordiligi
Elīna Garanča - Dorabella
Rebecca Evans - Despina

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House

Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

Jonathan Miller (director)

Così fan tutte may well be the most ruthlessly, painfully true of all dramas. How could anyone ever have thought it superficial? Shocking, yes, but trivial? Even Tristan, devastating indictment of romantic love though it may be, succumbs to an extent to the glorification of that most destructive manifestation of the will to power: what Wagner, in correspondence, called Alberich's liebesgelüste. (Wagner was avoiding capitalisation of nouns during this 'revolutionary' period.) Così, by virtue of its highly contrived plot and development – Lorenzo Da Ponte knew precisely what he was doing – barely pretends at a false reconciliation, even, perhaps especially, at the very end. Mozart's ravishing music presents not a romantic utopia but rather how things really are. Its realism is truly shocking, all the more so given the aching beauty with which it is expressed. Where even most tragedies will flinch, this most sophisticated of comedies does not. Maybe Die Meistersinger, a far darker work than many realise, comes closest, yet it also does not depict the human condition quite so unsparingly as Così.

All of the singers impressed. Polenzani and Regazzo were both new to me, but acquitted themselves very well, both vocally and dramatically, with a sure command of line and style. As Ferrando, Polenzani matched a honeyed tone with just the right amount of virility, without ever descending into coarseness, as many tenors have been known to do in this role. Regazzo's vocal swagger was never overdone, but underlined the difference between him and his more reflective partner-in-deception. The Ferranese sisters were both well matched and well contrasted. Garança, with her appealingly creamy yet always secure tone, fully deserves the plaudits she has won. Röschmann, if a little less colourful, exhibited her expected fine command of Mozartian style. Rebecca Evans proved a refreshingly youthful, vigorous Despina, with nothing of the usual old maid about her: acting included, rather than precluded, singing. But the presiding genius on stage was Thomas Allen, whose portrayal, in whichever production I have seen him, now comes close to definitive. Watching, directing, manipulating, here is the supremely judged watchmaker – or at least he would be were there no conductor to consider.

For Sir Colin Davis's reading came as close to perfection as we may ever expect to hear. It might be foolish to say without reservation that this was his greatest performance of any work, but I should not hesitate to say that he has done nothing greater. I have never doubted that Mozart is the most difficult composer to perform well, not least since the perfection in his music requires that ever elusive perfection from the performer. The balance between every aspect of Mozart's requirements – melody, harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation, phrasing, articulation ... – is something in which Davis came as close to perfection as anyone since Karl Böhm. In his more recent Mozart performances, I have noticed a greater flexibility. This was certainly in evidence here, perhaps more so than in any performance of his I have yet heard. Some passages (e.g., during the Overture and Fiordiligi's Act II Aria, 'Per pieta') were taken daringly slowly, creating a magical stillness in which every heartbeat might be heard, and yet so perfectly that they never tipped into langour. Fleetness elsewhere was never purchased at the expense of that ruinous hard-driven quality that afflicts almost all 'period' or 'period-influenced' Mozart. Nor, I hardly need say, was there any of the alternate greyness and sourness exhibited by orchestras of that ilk. Instead, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House came as close to usurping the Vienna Philharmonic's Mozart crown as any orchestra ever will. (And it should, of course, be remembered that on a bad day, and specifically with an inferior conductor, Viennese Mozart will fall far short of this.) Bubbling woodwind, the tenderly caressing horns of cuckoldry during 'Per pieta', strings silky almost beyond belief, kettledrum-playing that judged - again! - to perfection the weight required to underpin harmonic and rhythmic momentum: all this and more was there.

The problem, sadly, lay with the production. At least it does for me, for I seem to be almost the only person who dislikes it. Part of the difficulty I have with it is that it is not nearly so clever as it thinks it is, or rather as Jonathan Miller thinks it is. He is right to point to the work's artificiality. It is that, of course, which permits its utterly ruthless realism; such are dialectics. Yet the artificiality is not there for its own sake, but in order to further the realism. I have no especial problem with the panoply of gadgetry, not least those incessantly employed mobile telephones, although less would be so much more here. There is far too much playing 'for laughs': this comedy is not, any more than Le Misanthrope, low farce. Most of the audience seemed to love this, taking up any opportunity to laugh at the most innoportune moments. However, the great stumbling block for me, as it was the previous time I saw this production, is the presentation of Ferrando and Guglielmo in their 'Albanian' disguises. One can understand the impulse to portray them very differently from their initial, Gieves and Hawkes-clad state, although even the necessity for that is debatable. (In so artifical a work, might it not be all the more powerful to render them very close, or even identical, to how they have always been?) But to present them in the most unattractive way possible, to compel fine artists to act with utterly unconvincing loutish behaviour, to make anyone who cares to consider the matter wonder how on earth anyone, let alone our ladies from Ferrara, would give men of such bizarre and unbecoming appearance even a second glance: not only does this more than strain credulity, it cheapens this most sophisticated of works. Whatever was Miller thinking of? This could not detract too much from the sublimity of the musical performance. But what a shame...

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Prom 4, Berio Sinfonia and Rossini Stabat Mater, 16 July 2007

Prom no.4, Monday 16 July 2007

Luciano Berio, Sinfonia

Gioachino Rossini, Stabat Mater

Janice Watson (soprano)
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)
Colin Lee (tenor)
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)
Swingle Singers
Chorus and Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

The obvious connection one might make between these two works, or perhaps better between their composers, is their Italian nationality. This might well have been a ploy on the part of the Proms, or indeed Antonio Pappano, to lure a greater audience for the Berio Sinfonia by presenting Rossini's Stabat mater. If so, all power to whomever one should credit. It is sad that one of the defining works, indeed classics, of post-war music should require such sugaring of the pill, but such is the harsh reality. (Is it not also sad that we should still find ourselves employing the catch-all title 'post-war' more than sixty years after the fabled 'year zero' of the avant-garde, as though nothing has changed then since then? So much has; yet has Berio, let alone Stockhausen, become any more 'popular' than he was in the 1950s and '60s?) However, there exists perhaps a more interesting, even if unconscious, kinship between these two pieces. Both subvert expectations of what should be entailed by their respective or apparent genres.

In Sinfonia, Berio employed an Italian title to alert us, as if we needed such assistance, to the distancing from the great German symphonic tradition. In the infomative programme note, Paul Griffiths pointed to the way in which the work's five movements 'differ not so much in their speed through time as in the kind of time they uncover.' Moreover, 'Sinfonia speaks not with the persuasive individuality of a symphony by Beethoven but as a crowd, clamorous and multifarious.' At the same time, both Beethoven and Berio drew inspiration from and confronted the world in which they lived, and emphatically not just the world of music. One of the most obvious ways in which Berio does this is through the words presented by the amplified voices (here the excellent Swingle Singers, who, in an earlier incarnation, gave both the work's first performance and its British premiere, the latter at the Proms).

Claude Lévi-Strauss's analyses of Amazonian myths (from Le Cru et le Cuit) define the realm of pre-history, identified by Griffiths as the first of his 'kinds of time'. The performers worked well together to impart a real sense of beginnings, of distant rumblings and imaginings, whilst ensuring that we were never quite sure what was what: part of Berio's conception, as he himself put it, of 'the experience of "not quite hearing" ... as essential to the nature of the work'. Another quality I should identify would be the element of meta-commentary: Sinfonia is, amongst many other things, music about music, and music about musical history (or pre-history). There is a definite kinship not only between this movement and the openings of Das Rheingold and Berg's Op.6 Orchestral Pieces, but also with what we might imagine to be the mythical first musical calls from within the rain-forest. (The very different forest of Siegfried and its primæaval murmurs also sprang to mind.) My hearing initially desired greater orchestral definition, but it soon settled down, and I am now inclined to think that the partial inchoateness was deliberate. Intentional or otherwise, it worked.

There was an appropriately luminous quality to the second movement, O King. The pianist and other percussion shone here especially. Griffiths's reference to 'a remembered moment' seemed particularly apt, given the associations with Stockhausen's 'moment form' and beyond him, Webern, evoked by a more pointillistic approach. I have always thought of the third movement, in which Berio famously overlays the scherzo from Mahler's second symphony, as like the flow of a river. Here, Griffiths described 'the swirl of impressions and memories as events pass by'. The river, like the first movement's forest, provides an appropriatly primæval foundation for a super-structure of musical allusions (Bach, Ravel, and Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier amongst them) and Beckett (The Unnamable). Delivery of the text from the Swingle Singers was once again unimpeachable, and a welcome element of humour was injected by references to 'Rossini's Stabat Mater' and 'Mr Antonio Pappano'. The waltzing interjections were particularly well-handled, as was the wonderful transition into the fourth movement, which one could well believe was about to become Mahler's 'O Röschen rot'. Berio assists the process, by replacing Mahler's words with 'rose de sang', but Pappano and his players somehow conveyed the 'alternative' path that might have been taken. This intermezzo-like movement ('the process of reawkening' (Griffiths)) and the synthetic, open-ended final movement ('all these times together') brought this most Joycean of works to a satisfyingly open-ended conclusion. The latter two movements sounded at times a little less engaged, but this was but a matter of degree. If the Swingle Singers can fairly be said to 'own' Sinfonia, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Pappano are not artists one might immediately associate with Berio, his own association with the orchestra notwithstanding. In bringing it once again to the Proms audience – including a trio of Chelsea Pensioners – they provided an estimable service.

Rossini would have seemed more obviously home territory to them, not least given the avowedly 'operatic' nature of his Stabat Mater; that this was not altogether borne out was somewhat surprising. I had the impression for a little more than half of the work, Pappano was trying to play down operatic associations. For me, however, the glory, dubious or otherwise, of the work is its at times almost surreal approach to setting the 13th-century Franciscan text. The opening, the finale, and a little of what comes in between are tailored, at least to some extent, towards the prayer to Mary at the foot of the Cross. On the other hand, and this is but one example, the sprightly and disturbingly catchy quartet setting of 'Sancta mater, istud agas/Crucifixi fige plagas/Cordi meo valide' (Holy Mother, do this for me,/stamp the wounds of thy crucified Son/firmly in my heart) is irremediably bizarre. The writer of the programme notes, whose very defensiveness draws undue attention to the 'problem' without ever quite calling it by its name, issued the following apologia: 'Composers, whether Mozart, Berlioz, or Schoenberg, do not alter their musical language when moving between one musical language and another. It is hardly surprising, then, that Rossini's Stabat Mater sounds like Rossini.' It is not, but it would be profoundly surprising were the Dies irae to sound, when set by Mozart and Berlioz, like 'Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen' or 'Le spectre de la rose'.

I mention this at some length because I wonder whether the first part of the performance was an attempt, even if unconscious, to issue a similar musical apologia. If so, the attempt was misguided. Even the dramatic (melodramatic?) 'Introduzione' sounded underpowered. It is true that much, though by no means all, of the orchestral writing is 'accompaniment', yet it has interest of its own, and deserves to be heard fully. On the occasions when the strings played with greater richness, one longed for more; the exception lay with the 'cellos, who exhibited a beautiful, rich tone throughout. Then, at a point which, accidentally or not, coincided with the cavatina from the finest of the soloists, there was a sea-change, with the orchestra finally given its head: not simply, or even primarily, a matter of volume, but more of expressivity. The subsequent direction may sometimes have been a little too hard-driven, especially in the finale, where the problem was compounded by seemingly unmotivated tempo changes. Nevertheless, the improvement was manifest. It was more akin to what I imagined Toscanini would have done, with little of the profound wisdom of a Giulini, but I was unquestionably grateful for the introduction of greater colour into proceedings.

The chorus sang well, without making an indelible impression. The soloists were a mixed bunch. Colin Lee failed to project his opening line adequately, and never quite seemed to recover. Ildar Abdrazakov exhibited a pleasing tone, though was not especially memorable. Janice Watson, replacing Emma Bell, evinced a greater range of tone, and became more 'operatic' as time went on. Unsurprisingly, however, Joyce DiDonato outshone them all; not for nothing was she given the Beverly Sills award. With an absolute command of style, she showed attentiveness to the shaping of the words (and to their meaning when the music allowed...). Moreover, her tuning remained utterly secure in a performance in which this was far from a given. A low point in that respect was the unaccompanied quartet, 'Quando corpus moriertur'. This is sometimes given to the chorus, and would certainly have been better thus performed on this occasion: some of the tuning was painfully approximate, if that. After that, the frenetic finale was bound to sound better than it might otherwise have done. However, should one, not entirely without justification, consider this to have been a performance centred upon DiDonato rather than, in the case of Sinfonia, upon the work itself, then a greater parity might emerge between these performances.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Mostly Mozart Festival, opening concert, Friday 13 July 2007

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453

Mass in C minor, KV 427/417a

Stefan Vladar (piano)

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Thomas Walker (tenor)
Iain Paterson (bass)

Mostly Mozart Festival Chorus

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Louis Langrée (conductor)

The Barbican's Mostly Mozart Festival began, bravely and/or confidently competing with the First Night of the Proms, with one of the most ravishingly beautiful of all Mozart's piano concertos and one of his two great unfinished choral masterpieces, the Mass in C minor. Louis Langrée, whom I had last encountered collapsing during a Glyndebourne performance of Don Giovanni, conducted those dependable old Mozart hands, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the orchestral mainstay of the festival. With the exception of an occasional slight dullness in the string tone – which one cannot imagine ever having occurred under Sir Neville Marriner – the Academy sounded much as it always has done: a small orchestra (strings were proportioned 8:6:4:4:2) of soloists, led by Kenneth Sillito, evincing a mostly exquisite polish and great clarity of tone. Signs of influence from the 'authentic' brigade were few and far between.

Stefan Vladar was a fine soloist in the concerto. His pearly tone stood closer, thinking of renowned Mozart pianists, to Murray Perahia's than to that of Daniel Barenboim, which was fitting for a Classical rather than a Romantic reading. An especially delightful facet of his performance was the ease with which he made those frequent horn-like figures in the left hand truly sound like a pair of horns; the orchestral pair of horns also shone in their antiphonal responses to the piano. At the end of the magical second movement's cadenza, beautifully played if a little distended, Vladar's lingering provided for an extra beat in the bar in which the orchestra returned: not a disaster, but a little odd to hear. Elsewhere, I occasionally felt that Vladar and Langrée underlined the Classical proportions a little too emphatically, with audible pauses between sections that might profitably have been dovetailed, but no one would have been able to claim a lack of structural understanding. Vladar adopted the fashionable practice of playing, continuo-style, during some of the orchestral tuttis. I find that, particularly in the first instance, this detracts from the contrast when the soloist makes his entry, but if 'performance practice' says that it ought to be done, many will automatically follow suit. The woodwind sounded divine, imparting a truly Mozartian wind-band sound to the many passages in Mozart desires just that, and a melting command of line – what a happy combination! – whenever required to do so for their solos. The strings soon recovered from the slight dullness I mentioned at the very beginning. Vibrato was varied intelligently rather than dogmatically, for instance to heighten the darkness of the slow movement's daring chromaticism. There is more than one way to do this, of course, but this was a method which, for the most part, proved effectively. The exhilirating antics of the finale's variations met with a keen response from soloist and orchestra, to bring a welcome foretaste of Papageno to the proceedings.

The last occasion I had heard the Mass in C minor in concert was in the Abbey Church of St Peter in Salzburg. With the best will in the world, the Barbican Hall could hardly substitute for the extraordinary Baroque interior decoration, nor for the historical connection. This then, not unreasonably, was a performance in which Langrée stressed athleticism and vigour over 'rococo-operatic sweets-of-sin' (Stravinsky on Mozart's masses). On its own terms, it worked very well, even if I should have been far from unhappy to have a little more of the quality from which Stravinsky, in his neo-Classical puritanism, recoiled – and a little more mystery too.

Langrée used his own edition of the work. It was difficult for me to tell how strongly it differed from others, save that it was a torso rather than a Robert Levin-style completion. There were some passages in which the brass sounded more prominent, and the strings less so; I even fancied that some of the brass notes may have been different from other editions. However, this may simply have been a matter of the conductor's orchestral balancing, bringing out certain parts more strongly than has often been the case.

Speeds were brisk, though never eccentrically so. There was little in the way of tempo variation, save for the very end, where Langrée's rallentando was somewhat laboured. (Perhaps this was partly a product of having to draw to an end that was never intended to be the end.) The ASMF's strings really dug into their double-dotted figures with a vigour complementing that of the conductor and the chorus. Woodwind was once again of the highest quality: Jaime Martin's magic flute sounded truly beguiling, and fiendishly fast bass lines were shaped by the bassoons as if this were the easiest thing in the world. The solemn intonations of the trombones sounded both archaic and Mozartian: just as it should be, and inevitably pointing forward to the Requiem. The timpanist certainly made his presence felt, although his hard sticks – which may well, of course, have been the conductor's choice – jarred with the rest of the orchestral blend. This was the only real concession to the 'period' lobby, and one we could well have done without.

The vocal soloists all acquitted themselves well. Susan Gritton's performance was surprisingly operatic, in an almost nineteenth-century sense during the Christe eleison. Indeed, Verdi did not sound so very far away, yet Gritton remained just on the side of what would have worked stylistically. Her willingness to forgo anything redolent of Meissen china provided a most welcome instruction in full-blooded Mozart singing. Lucy Crowe was a splendid late replacement for the indisposed Cora Burggraaf. Her coloratura was spellbinding, not to mention note-perfect and unblemished in its articulation. Thomas Walker's rather English tenor was never too much so, and Iain Paterson shone in his restricted role. The nicely contrasted voices stood out from each other during ensembles, yet provided a well-judged harmonic blend too, for which I am sure part of the praise must be attributed to the conductor. Paterson's resonant bass made Walker's tone sound a little bleached during the Benedictus, but this is a minor point.

The chorus was also very fine. If it lacked the great corporate personality of established choirs, it complemented the orchestra well as a parallel collection of soloists. Forty-strong, it was a little on the small side, but made up for this in musical expertise. Lines were distinct in fugal passages, without sounding mannered. In the homophonic doxological sections, this really did sound like a throng of angels praising the Almighty, never more so than in the Gloria, with its resounding Handel quotations on 'in excelsis'. There would have been little point in trying to imitate the sound of an Austro-German choir, and these singers did not.

Indeed, whilst my preference, speaking more generally, undoubtedly leans towards a performance such as that of the Wiener Singverein and the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan, or the Berlin Radio Choir and the same orchestra under Abbado, this was a very good – and in some cases, excellent – performance of its kind: on a relatively small scale, using modern instruments. It augured well for the rest of the Barbican's festival and for the future success of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera, 4 July 2007

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House, Wednesday 4 July 2007

Don Giovanni - Erwin Schrott
Commendatore - Robert Lloyd
Donna Anna - Anna Netrebko and Marina Poplavskaya
Don Ottavio - Michael Schade
Donna Elvira - Ana María Martínez
Leporello - Kyle Ketelsen
Masetto - Matthew Rose
Zerlina - Sarah Fox

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
David Syrus (conductor)

Francesca Zambello (director)
Duncan Macfarland (revival director)

The Overture, and especially the first section of the Overture, did not augur well. Strings sounded wiry and anaemic; the natural brass (why, oh why...?!) sounded as it perforce would: alternating between feeble and rasping; there was little space (not just a matter of tempo) to breathe. Part of this, I suspect, was a product of David Syrus taking over simply for the final two performances, and therefore dealing with an orchestra versed in a reading that in large part would have been Ivor Bolton's. Bolton has been a curious case when I have heard him conduct Mozart: a haplessly frenetic Mass in C minor in which the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra was split between glorious woodwind and the rest as signalled above, a surprisingly fine Entführung (aided by a superb production), and a Symphony no.34, which, despite a few irritating 'period' touches and a recklessly fast 'slow' movement, displayed elsewhere a festive weight that would not have sounded out of place chez Klemperer or Colin Davis. After the Overture, however, things settled down. Whilst this in no sense ranked as a great interpretation - prepare to forget Furtwängler, Giulini, Klemperer, Böhm, Davis, Haitink, Muti, et al. - it supported the singers well and rarely drew narcissistic attention to itself. How much of this was Syrus and how much Bolton is impossible, at least for me, to say. I should add that parts of the Stone Guest scene, sadly, reverted to the hard-driven, underpowered tendencies of the Overture. And the natural brass remained, well, like natural brass: nothing could be done about that...

The cast was generally fine. Anna Netrebko, her cold notwithstanding, managed to convey dignity and glamour (and fine musicality) as Donna Anna. Unfortunately, her illness rendered her incapable of singing for the second act. Her last-minute replacement did well enough under the circumstances, though her tuning was often alarmingly awry, and there was little attempt at modulation of her rather strident voice. Michael Schade acquitted himself with honour in the thankless role of Don Ottavio. Ana María Martínez presented a wholly credible Elvira - and one who was far more than a wronged harridan. In 'Mi tradi', she lent a suitably erotic, proto-Wagnerian or -Straussian element to her interpretation, without ever overdoing such premonitions. Bringing off Leporello is often difficult, but Kyle Ketelsen had clearly thought through the balance of comedy, charisma, and class struggle, and was unfailingly musical in his shaping of lines.

This, however, was Erwin Schrott's show. I can say without hesitation that, of the various Giovannis have seen on stage, his was the most complete. He exuded charisma through stage presence and through his dangerous, honeyed tones, hued with a quicksilver, predatory dialectic between darkness and light. One felt that he could have had anyone in the theatre. His libertine defiance was duly heroic, although the orchestra and its direction unhelpfully threatened to run away with themselves during his final moments. Nevertheless, Schrott's confrontation with Robert Lloyd's predictably fine Commendatore was gripping enough for Mozart's truly extraordinary re-dramatisation (one almost dare call it intensification) of the Fall. It would take a sterner, more puritanical constitution than mine not to consider - and perhaps rather more than consider - siding with the Devil on the strength of this magnificent performance.

This brings me to the production. Francesca Zambello was clearly thinking along the right lines, in presenting a world suffused with Catholicism. Everything about Mozart's opera - and in this, he goes far beyond da Ponte's libretto - shows awareness of the theological stakes, which could hardly be higher. Unfortunately, Zambello, as is her wont, seemed too easily seduced by concessions to theatrical spectacle, not least the fires of the climactic scene. More worryingly, the 'religion' remained stubbornly at the level of religious tat. Whilst there may be good reasons for displaying highly visible manifestations of such Mediterranean piety, it should never be an end in itself. This was a pity, because the approach promised a great deal. It could have strengthened Schrott's astonishing portrayal, rather than provided a merely picturesque backdrop thereto. This was undoubtedly, however, a Don Giovanni to remember, if largely for its hero.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Janáček: Katya Kabanova, Royal Opera, 2 July 2007

Leoš Janáček: Katya Kabanova

Royal Opera House, Monday 2 July 2007

Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanová (Kabanicha) - Felicity Palmer
Tichon Ivanyc Kabanov - Chris Merritt
Katěrina (Kát'a) - Janice Watson
Varvara - Liora Grodnikaite
Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj - Oleg Bryjak
Boris Grigorjevič - Kurt Streit
Vána Kudrjáš - Toby Spence
Glaša - Miranda Westcott
Fekluša - Anne Mason
Kuligin - Jeremy White

Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

Sir Trevor Nunn (director)
Andrew Sinclair (revival director)

Sir Charles Mackerras was the first to conduct a Janáček opera in this country, this very work in 1951, at Sadler's Wells. Surprisingly, and notwithstanding his celebrated 1976 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, this series of performances has been the first time he has conducted Katya Kabanova for the Royal Opera. It has certainly been worth the wait. If Sir Colin Davis is authoritative, perhaps even definitive, in the music of Berlioz (see last week's Benvenuto Cellini), then so is Mackerras in that of Janáček. The experience of more than half a century made itself shown, yet there was a vitality as youthful as one could imagine. To present such a combination of authority and fresh (re-)discovery is a rare thing indeed, once again akin to Davis's Berlioz. Rhythms were taut; harmonies were justly placed, neither under- nor over-played. The orchestra was on excellent form, both corporately and solistically (a welcome change from the recent Fidelio). And all aspects of the performance sounded - and looked - fully co-ordinated with Sir Trevor Nunn's production.

This might lazily be described as 'traditional'. What a relief, though, for those of us for whom this is not automatically a pejorative term, to have a staging responsive to the work, including the musical text. The storm scene – Alexander Ostrovsky's play was entitled The Thunderstorm – was especially well handled, stage events mirroring musical events, and vice versa. The flashes of lightning were well considered: terrible, but without anything of the unnecessarily 'spectacular'. And the collapse of the Cross at the centre – visually and conceptually – of the scene, provided a powerful metaphor for the collapse of Katya's world in this confessional drama. Doubtless Katya could successfully be staged in various periods, but there is no reason to disdain a production that respects both Ostrovsky's original nineteenth-century Russian setting and Janáček's adaptation.

Janice Watson was superb in the title role. The tenderness of her portrayal would have led anyone to sympathise, even if her cause had been rather less just. Kurt Streit sang well, though one felt little magnetism in his portrayal of Katya's lover, Boris. Felicity Palmer, however, threatened to steal the show as the shrewish mother-in-law, Kabanicha. Her unflinching moralism coruscated. Whilst it could hardly make the role sympathetic, Palmer's portrayal rendered utterly credible her vicious bourgeois persecution of Katya. Her final line, unmoved by Katya's fate, respectably thanking the good people of her community for their assistance, was delivered as chillingly as one dare imagine. Toby Spence and Liora Grodnikaite were both wonderful in their roles as the opera's other pair of lovers: full of youth, life, and tenderness. The fine shaping of vocal lines was doubtless a product of Mackerras's careful preparation, not to mention inspiration. This was a memorable evening indeed.