Mirandolina, Garsington Opera, Oxfordshire

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The Independent Culture

Bohuslav Martinu did not live to see the premiere of his sunniest opera, which took place in Switzerland two months before his death in 1959; it’s taken fifty years, from that day to this, for the British premiere of "Mirandolina" to materialise. Why the gap?

Hard to say, since it’s a tonal work, and easy on the ear. Maybe it was regarded as a retrograde step after gritty works like "Julietta" and "The Greek Passion"; maybe it was simply seen as too great a technical challenge. Full marks to Garsington for taking a punt on it: nice to report that the gamble has paid off.

Designer Francis O’Connor presents us with an open-air stage filled with brightly coloured walls, arches, and stairs like children’s building blocks: a fanciful Florentine inn, which perfectly reflects the rumbustiousness radiated by Martin Andre’s bold little band. The music has echoes of Poulenc, Janacek, and neo-classical Stravinsky; when baritone Andrew Slater (as the bewigged Marquess of Forlimpopoli) and tenor Mark Wilde (as the foppish Count of Albafiorita) fight like turkey-cocks over the attentions of the beautiful young innkeeper, we are fair and square in the world of commedia dell’arte.

Sets, costumes, acting, and singing are all suffused with the sunlight which this Goldoni adaptation demands. The technical challenge lies in the extreme complexity of the vocal lines, which follow the libretto as faithfully as those in Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande", which Martinu admired. At climactic moments the singers fuse in a quartet, sextet, or septet, but most of the time they are thinking too fast on their feet to indulge in set-piece utterances.

While the fops pursue their female prey, a third noble guest disdains to try: as he is a misogynist, the prey decides to prey on him, and when he capitulates, she perversely goes off with a young servant instead; two strolling actresses add to the fun. But if the plot has the neatness of an algebraic equation, director Martin Duncan's cast bring it to exhilaratingly raunchy life. Geoffrey Dolton's misogynist is painfully believable, while the Colombian soprano Juanita Lascarro - petite, knowing, and utterly irresistible - becomes the convincing focus of everyone’s desire. The singing is first class, the choreography a delight, and the diction so good that we scarcely need surtitles. This may be no masterpiece, but what's not to like?