Arts: Opera: A compact comedy of manners

SMETANA IS thriving this season. The Bartered Bride has enjoyed two new productions - from the Royal Opera and Opera North - with Glyndebourne's still in the pipeline. Scottish Opera's visually arresting Dalibor, in David Pountney's Edinburgh staging, rubbed shoulders with Eva Urbanova's dazzling concert rendering of the mythical Bohemian queen, Libuse.

There's more good Smetana to hand. The Kiss (his exquisite sequel to The Bartered Bride), The Secret, The Devil's Wall, and even his marginally ponderous The Brandenburgers in Bohemia could all transfer well to the English stage.

Richard Strauss was an avid fan of The Two Widows, currently being toured in Graham Vick's new production for the City of Birmingham Touring Opera. It's easy to see why. It's a compact comedy of manners: the earlier version used here, which admits spoken dialogue and just four solo roles, has shades of Cosi and even Arabella or Capriccio about it. The cousins, Karolina and Aneshka, are very different. To the former: "Widowhood is a new beginning." She rises to the challenge, runs her husband's estate, and advocates - in a captivating Act I aria delivered with splendid aplomb by Kate Flowers - that 'Living is what life is for'.

Aneshka, the victim of an arran-ged marriage with an unloved elderly husband, prolongs her mourning in clerical black from a misplaced sense of guilt. One keeps expecting her, amid shrugs and sighs, to echo Varya's line from The Cherry Orchard: "If only God would help us."

Graham Vick's stylish, economical production looks good, thanks to a trimly attractive self-standing stage put together in the Royal Opera House workshops, a simple Chekhovian set in pastels, neat moves within the constrained acting area, and unfussy lighting. The chorus is omitted and the orchestra pared to a piano quintet, shearing the arias of Smetana's vivid orchestration but underlining the salon intimacy of the piece.

Christopher Willis, directing from the keyboard, occasionally allows the piano to protrude, but keeps a hold on tempi, ritenuti and rubato to the advantage of players and singers alike. In Act I, not just Ladislav, the suitor-turned-poacher (David Owen) and Mumlal, the grumpy gamekeeper/factotum (Michael Druiett), but all four singers tended to overbear for the acoustic - audibility is crucial - and at some cost to colouring and through-line.

Despite a witty mock-trial, even the exquisite cello-led quartet initiated by Aneshka felt too much like Verdi, too little like Mozart. Rather, it was the accompanying quintet which underlined the score's delicate shading and variety.

Act II was uplifting. Beverley Mills caught the poignancy of Aneshka's conflicting motives with inspired solo singing. The opening quintet, Ladis-lav's offstage aria, the girls' duet, the letter scene, Karolina's flirting, Mumlal's smug aria, and the final quartet all caught the wit and fun of Emanuel Zungel's libretto, enhanced by Graham Vick's spirited additional dialogue.

'The Two Widows' tours until 29 May (0121-246 6644)