The Beggar's Opera, Linbury Studio, London<br>Skin Deep, Grand Theatre, Leeds<br>Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, Barbican, London

Britten's bloodless take on Gay's gutsy depiction of London lowlife will have the opera police round in a trice
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The Independent Culture

It's odd that Kurt Weill and Igor Stravinsky, a German and a Russian, should both have captured the rough and tumble of lowlife London better than Benjamin Britten.

Held between thumb and forefinger as though recoiling from the squalor of John Gay's 1728 original, Britten's pastel-shaded adaptation of The Beggar's Opera is as dated as a Gainsborough Pictures costume drama. Listen hard, and you can catch a smack of Grimesian sea-spray in Lucy Lockit's Act II lament, a tarnish of Quintish menace in Macheath's swaggering, hyper-sexual ballads, a hint of broken innocence behind the multiple betrayals. But prim, quaint and clever are the bywords in this least successful of Britten's stage works.

Smartly played by the City of London Sinfonia under Christian Curnyn, and sweetly sung by Sarah Fox (Lucy) and Tom Randle (Macheath), the score remains an attractive curiosity, though Gay's promise of "no recitative" proves a mixed blessing in Justin Way's production. Mockney, Welsh and RP accents collide unhappily in the spoken dialogue, while Kimm Kovac and Andrew Hays's costume designs offer a hackneyed view of contemporary criminality: all Croydon facelifts, platform trainers, shell suits and unsexy sex-workers. Held together by Randle's slippery, virile Macheath and briefly given some Beryl Cook-ish va-va-voom by Frances McCafferty's pneumatic Diana Trapes (they alone speak and move as well as they sing), this is otherwise too poor a production for downstairs at the Royal Opera.

I've often thought of cosmetic surgery during dull productions of dull operas, but last Friday was the first time I thought of it during a dull production of a dull opera about cosmetic surgery. Skin Deep looked supermodel good on paper: a lithe, scalpel-sharp satire from Armando Iannucci, David Sawer and Richard Jones. Compared with the excesses of FX's Nip/Tuck, however, Iannucci's scenario is a saddlebag of cellulite. The moral – that we should love each other as nature made us – is as ineffectual as the wrinkled penises on the nylon flesh suits of the "nude" chorus, while Jones's directorial tropes (scrummed choruses, perms, NHS glasses and pedal-bins) look tired against the chicken-fillet pink of Stewart Laing's sets.

Though brilliantly played by Opera North's orchestra under Richard Farnes, Sawer's smarting strings, nudging brass, finger-wagging woodwind and sinister B-movie choral glissandi fail to develop. Too many words disappear into the tangled choral textures, and Sawer's writing for solo voice is most confident in the wordless coloratura of desire, excitement and outrage. Surtitles might help, though Iannucci rhymes Pollock (an agoraphobic Hollywood hunk) with "bollock" (one of which he loses) often enough to get through.

Sympathy for the testicularly challenged is scant. What little kindness there is comes from Sawer's handling of Amy Freston's transformation from a perfection-obsessed surgeon's daughter to a bereft transsexual, made over in the image of her cosmetically enhanced beloved. Though Freston, Janis Kelly, Mark Stone, Heather Shipp, Andrew Tortise and Geoffrey Dolton offer layers of character that wouldn't otherwise be evident in this hatchet job of an operetta, I left with my corrugator muscles more toned than my zygomaticus, major or minor.

What brow-smoothing balm, then, to hear Hail! Bright Cecilia, Purcell's seductive ode to the martyr whose first torture was to be steamed alive in a Sicilian spa.

From the "am'rous flute" (actually two recorders) and "wondrous machine" (the organ Saint Cecilia was once credited with inventing) of 1692, to the "soft complaining flute" (a real one) and "double, double, double beat" of the timpani in Handel's robust 1739 sequel, and on through Haydn's Missa Cellensis of 1789, Mark Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre communicated the spine-tingling sensual and spiritual intoxication of sacred and semi-sacred music. This delectable realisation of all three works was notable for the exceptional musicality of violinists Thibault Noally and Nicolas Mazzoleni and flautist Florian Cousin, cellist Nils Wieboldt's dreamlike obbligato improvvisando, and the sweet elasticity of Lucy Crowe's soprano arias.

The Beggar's Opera (020-7304 4000) to 31 Jan; Skin Deep (0844 848 2722) to 11 Feb