The Barber of Seville (or Salisbury), King's Head, Islington, London<br/>Stephen Kovacevich, Wigmore Hall, London

That's a fine Figaro of a man. But Rossini's not at home to Jane Austen
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The Independent Culture

First seen in Kilburn's Cock Tavern, OperaUpClose has moved up-market and across north London to Islington.

If the success of Robin Norton- Hale's gritty bedsit production of La bohème took the company by surprise, this new direction may dismay early supporters. Launched on a cloud of hyperbole from Jonathan Miller, The Barber of Seville (or Salisbury) transposes Rossini's acid comedy to the genteel world of Jane Austen in a double-whammy of bourgeoisification.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British love a costume drama. Put a handsome young man into breeches and a floppy shirt, and women will swoon, however chaotic his coloratura. But make that young man a barber (Richard Immergluck's Figaro), and even Lydia Bennet, on whom Rowan Hellier's feisty, pouting Rosina seems to be based, would not confide in him. Austen's crippling fascination with class is gaily swept aside as Norton-Hale's translation skids between centuries, raising a metaphorical little finger one moment, and its middle finger the next. The Marquis [sic] of Bath, played with reckless vigour by Philip Lee, becomes a hybrid of naughty Mr Wickham and dashing Mr Darcy, while John Savournin's bumbling Doctor Bartleby and the lugubrious singing teacher Mr Basil (Georgios Papaefstratiou) seem to have wandered in from Vanity Fair.

Attractive in ensemble, with Susan Jiwey's Bertha providing a clean top line, the young cast are challenged by Rossini's roulades. Mozart would have been a kinder choice. It's cosy, goofy fun, in under-directed village panto fashion, with a rickety upright piano played by Alison Luz and a tuppence-ha'penny set of wooden chairs. But it's hardly proof that affordable sung drama can wrench your heart as cruelly as anything at Covent Garden.

How cool is it to be 70? Very cool if you're Stephen Kovacevich, who marked his birthday by playing Brahms's F-minor Piano Quintet with the Belcea Quartet; showcasing young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili in the Liszt Piano Sonata; and making sweet and sinister music with his famous ex, Martha Argerich, and Colin Currie and Sam Walton in Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. This was an exuberant, classily programmed party in which one piano was left warped and bruised from the violence of Buniatishvili's Liszt. Age-dimmed smudges and youthful brutality aside, the musicianship was electrifying.

'The Barber of Seville (or Salisbury)' to 14 Nov (0844 477 1000)

Next Week:

Claudia Pritchard blows out candles with the BBC Symphony Orchestra