Arts: Opera: Genet's genre-benders

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IT'S NOT unknown for operas to be made into plays, but generally the spoken theatre has enough plots of its own. Opera, on the other hand, has no qualms about plundering theatre's past and present. When the plunder yields Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, or Verdi's Falstaff, who can complain? Yet I'm not sure the spoken theatre is the best place for contemporary opera to find its narratives, not least because a quality we might call "operatic" is something so much modern theatre already strives for.

In the programme for his new opera, The Maids, the composer John Lunn admits that Jean Genet's play from which his opera derives is "already very operatic" but is wise enough not to exaggerate that quality in his "interpretation".

True, the maids of the title are sung by brothers, counter-tenor Christopher Robson (Claire) and tenor Nigel Robson (Solange), but, thanks, in part to Olivia Fuchs' libretto as well as to the music's emollient effects, their relationship is rendered less malignant than the ritualised abjection to which Genet submitted his characters. Or is it that the decorum of opera, specifically new opera, negates the extremity that modern drama seeks?

Not entirely, Fuchs' libretto gives Solange a wonderful line, "My spurt of saliva is my spray of diamonds" and as s/he sings it, we see those diamonds cascading through the air. Is it acting, or is it simply what happens when singers sing? Both, but it wouldn't happen if the line were simply spoken. And the opera swiftly outlines the maids' sad lives. Powerless in their appointed roles, they take it in turns to play Madame, replacing drab serving uniforms with Madame's finery, imagination providing what life can't.

The music Lunn provides them is on the arioso side of recitative, occasionally expanding into the full-out aria, the voices kept afloat by an orchestra of nine players, unfussily conducted by Dominic Wheeler.

For much of the opera the orchestra plays like the pit band for a sleazily high-class floorshow. Latinate rhythms crept at every turn, and at one point the brothers Robson tango across the stage. The Robsons are intense performers, and singing together magnifies that.

The impoverishment of the maids' relationship is underlined by the brief appearance of Madame, whose heartless glamour is well caught by Emma Selway. Lunn gives her the most fully operatic music, to which Selway responds grandly.

Like Lunn's music, Fuchs' direction voids expressionistic extremes, while her skilfully condensed libretto allows the composer to work swiftly: the whole opera lasts 80 minutes. I'm still not convinced that the theatre is where opera should be looking for its stories, but The Maids (developed through the ENO Contemporary Opera Studio) tells its story neatly and economically.

Further performances at Lyric tonight and on 16, 17, 19, 20 June (0181 741 2311); and at Oxford Playhouse, 26, 27 June (01865 798 600).