Classical: Take a bow Chelsea Opera

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IF OUR big opera companies are at last finding stage-room for Massenet's operas, there are still a couple of dozen that languish in dusty neglect. Step forward Chelsea Opera Group, whose concert performance of Esclarmonde brought out the Massenetomanes last Sunday.

The opera's plot whisks us from Byzantium to Blois and back, on the way offering spells, curses and an enchanted isle where magic kisses wake brave knights from slumber. In our post-Disney, post-Spielberg era, magic and transformation are exactly what opera needs. All it takes is a stage director of genius ... oh, and a soprano of unbounded beauty and limitless vocal resources.

Massenet wrote the opera in 1888 as a kind of love-letter to the remarkable voice of Sibyl Sanderson, which reportedly spanned three octaves, but Sibyl Sandersons don't come along every day. Joan Sutherland made the title role of her own in the 1970s, and Angela Gheorghiu might do the same now.

Chelsea Opera Group isn't quite in that league, but full marks for turning to a French soprano, Raphaelle Farman, whose statuesque intensity gave her the physical authority for the part. Under pressure, Farman tended to snatch at notes, her tone turning sour. In other words, she's human, and it would be interesting to see her in something a little less exorbitant.

That's not Massenet's style, and nor did he give his tenors an easy ride. Here, the role of the knight Roland went to Justine Lavender, whose phrasing was exemplary. At the top of the voice, Lavender squeezed the notes a little lightly, but elsewhere the voice rang out clean and true, and, even though this was a concert performance, tenor and soprano displayed a genuine dramatic rapport.

Chelsea Opera Group had assembled a strong supporting cast, with Jeremy White imposing as the Emperor Phorcas, and Roberto Salvatori upright and sonorous as the Bishop of Blois.

Under Howard Williams' forthright direction, the players gave it their all. Hocus-pocus? Perhaps, but yield to the magic, as the audience plainly did, and the effect can be entrancing. Now, is anyone brave, or foolish enough to stage the piece?

Nick Kimberley