Volga pursuits

Opera - Tom Rosenthal on how money and vision add up at Welsh National Opera

Opera is often considered to be a thoroughly wasteful and extravagant activity. A visit to the administrative offices of Welsh National Opera in Cardiff goes some way to correcting this impression. Although a recent, purpose-built structure, it is refreshingly austere, with a spartan canteen and reception area.

When I spoke to WNO's 43-year-old general director, Anthony Freud (no relation to all the other artistic Freuds), I mentioned the hostile rumours about the extravagance of the great German director Peter Stein. Allegedly, Stein had made a big fuss about getting exactly the right kind of fishing boats from Aldeburgh for his diamond-hard version of Peter Grimes. On the contrary, Freud told me, Stein had actually saved the company money, as the Suffolk boatbuilders charged far less than the theatrical furniture and prop specialists who were invited to tender.

Money is, inevitably, the painful preoccupation of any savvy opera boss, and Freud is currently in the thick of it. He has a deficit on his modest £12m budget, and is now undergoing the horrors, known to many of the best art administrators in Britain, of an Arts Council stabilisation grant inquisition. WNO is unique in receiving core funding from the Arts Councils of England and Wales but, despite Freud's careful stewardship, more money is needed to avoid a deficit. WNO is a close-knit, sparely run, but immensely productive company of true international standing. It devotes a large part of its energy to touring in Wales (Swansea and Llandudno) and England (from Southampton to Oxford; Bristol to Liverpool).

Freud, an ebullient, formidably articulate man (he is a trained lawyer) who - unlike some other intendants in Britain - really knows and loves opera as an art form, is remarkably calm, even sanguine, about the stabilisation inquiry. "It dominates the life of me and my senior colleagues, and has done for the last year and a half or so," he says. "The company, on its current level of funding, is not viable. But we need to take stock to put ourselves in shape for the Welsh Millennium Centre."

The Millennium Centre is what used to be called the Cardiff Bay Opera House. The architect Zaha Hadid put forward a visionary design for the project that frightened everyone to death, so a new, more conventional building design by (safe) local architects is scheduled to be completed in 2004, a date Freud eagerly anticipates. It will increase his house capacity from 1,000 to 1,700, enabling him, for the same outlay, to reduce prices, satisfy those who at present cannot get tickets, and increase revenue. The programme for the opening year, including a new Wozzeck, is already at the advanced planning stage.

Asked if a solid, enlarged, permanent home would erode WNO's capacity and enthusiasm for touring, Freud said: "WNO exists to tour; it is not a by-product of the central activity." Sadly, at the moment, it has had to cut back on touring to save money, but the basic schedule is to have three six-week seasons in Cardiff, offering 30 performances, plus three weeks touring in Wales outside Cardiff (the company runs the surtitles in Welsh in Llandudno, but only there) and 14 weeks touring in England.

WNO is also singularly adept at fixing up co-productions with other houses, an easier task for the house perhaps because of the exigencies of operating a touring system where every production has to fit nearly a dozen different theatres. In a single year recently, it shared The Carmelites with ENO (which had originated it), Billy Budd with Australia, Fidelio with Munich, La Clemenza di Tito with Bordeaux and Boris Godunov with Zurich. The current Katya Kabanova is shared with Geneva.

Having seen WNO's productions over the past ten years (seven of them under Freud), in six different locations, I consider it a world-class company. It has, of course, failed occasionally, as all good companies do, but what particularly impresses me is its unusual skill with new productions of old warhorses. Its Carmen is far better staged than the London versions. And its absolutely traditional, almost copybook, Tosca is the best seen in the UK in the past decade, probably because it was staged by that brilliant theatre director, Michael Blakemore. When it comes to the more testing repertoire, there have been productions such as Richard Jones's recent Queen of Spades, Neil Armfield's Billy Budd and David Alden's Coronation of Poppea, all of which rank with anything you can see at the ROH, ENO, or in New York, Vienna or Milan.

It would be pleasing to report that the latest production by this dynamic company was a triumphant success, but I am not the first to be unhappy with Katie Mitchell's version of Katya Kabanova. Musically, it is sound rather than inspiring, lacking the overpowering emotional impact of Mitchell's earlier Jenufa (conducted by Daniel Harding). Carlo Rizzi is not a natural Janacek conductor, and Suzanne Murphy seems less happy here with the mother-in-law role of Kabanicha than with the anguished foster-mother in Jenufa. The men are all decent and Nuccia Focile is an affecting, beautifully clear Katya.

The problem arises not, as has been suggested, by the use of non-Czechs to sing in Janacek's own language - that, as with Jenufa, works perfectly well - but with Mitchell's transposition of a work set firmly by the composer in the repressive, superstitious and, above all, ignorant and hypocritical provincial Russia of the mid-19th century, in a subtle compression of Ostrovsky's great 1859 play The Storm. Mitchell has moved it to postwar communist Russia and the sets, by Vicki Mortimer, also add dimensions not to be found in the Janacek. The first scene is set not in a park but in a dreary little cafe, while the final scene, originally on "a lonely spot by the banks of the Volga", has become a station waiting-room, evoking unwanted resonances of Brief Encounter, rather than Anna Karenina.

More seriously, since Mitchell is honest enough not to suppress, as some "modernising" directors do, inconvenient phrases from the text, the faithful surtitles tell us about merchants wanting to beat serfs, not knowing about lightning-rods, and refusing to believe that the storm is caused by electricity. Mitchell is one of our best directors (her 1996 Don Giovanni was both inventive and flawless), but not only is all this irritating, it stretches our credulity. Brutal merchants and fearsome mothers-in-law, sadistically destroying the lives of seriously wimpish men and one radiant, terrorised young woman, are the norms for a great drama of tsarist Russia; however, they seem too strange by half in modern - even Stalinist - Russia.

Peter Hall is the most inventive of all the orthodox opera directors, yet one with a dedicated adherence to the intentions of the composer. In his interview in the current Glyndebourne programme, he is scathing about directors who play unnecessary games with time, arguing that "to drag them [historical operas] into our period is unwarranted abuse". Although, when Freud and I discussed this issue and I expressed reservations about Mitchell's Jenufa, he was both passionate and lyrical in her defence, I feel that, in the case of Katya, her desire to reinterpret Janacek has gone quite a long way towards undermining WNO's typically committed team effort with this harrowing masterpiece.

Katya Kabanova is now touring and can be seen in Southampton and Oxford in June, and Llandudno and Bristol in July. For details, call WNO on 02920 464 666