First performed in 1775, The Duenna marked the resurgence of comic opera in England. Or so the story goes.
Despite the best efforts of Thomas Arne, whose opera Artaxerxes aspired to Italian elegance, London had never mislaid its funny bone. A disputatious collaboration between the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, his father-in-law Thomas Linley, and his brother-in-law Tom Linley, The Duenna is the missing link between John Gay and Gilbert and Sullivan. Its score is a pretty hodge-podge of Pleasure Garden serenades, strophic laments, Irish and Scottish folksongs, Continental borrowings and what W S Gilbert would later refer to as "blameless dances", pricked through a prolix spoken comedy too in love with its own aperçus.
In a country heaving with 18th-century stylists, casting The Duenna should be a cinch. But Sheridan's famed wit falls flat and ugly in Michael Barker-Caven's English Touring Opera production. Though love is the supposed engine, petulance and vanity prevail as minxy Louisa (Charlotte Page) and sulky Clara (Olivia Safe) conspire with matronly Margaret (Nuala Willis) to outwit Louisa's dominering father Don Jerome (Richard Suart) and his son-in-law designate, Isaac Mendoza (Adrian Thompson). Louisa's Antonio (Joseph Shovelton) is feckless, while Clara's Ferdinand (Damian Thantrey) has an anger-management issue.
The dialogue is either arch or blustering, and quite at odds with the simplicity and charm of the music, which calls for Mozartian elegance and Handelian fluidity but gets neither. A mixed-ability, period-instruments orchestra under Joseph McHardy features lovely flute-playing and some eye-watering intonation problems from the violas. If you like the idea of being trapped in a chocolate box and shouted at for three hours – and judging from the hilarity around me, many people do – it's a must-see.
Promised End is The Duenna's unlikely companion piecein ETO's autumn tour. Alexander Goehr's opera focuses on the relationships between Lear (Roderick Earle) and Gloucester (Nigel Robson), Gloucester and Edgar (Adrian Dwyer), and Lear and Cordelia (Lina Markeby, also as the Fool). Beautifully designed and lit by Adam Wiltshire and Guy Hoare, James Conway's production closely mirrors Goehr's pace and structure. Movements are stylised, Regan (Julia Sporsen) and Goneril (Jacqueline Varsey) a two-headed, eight-limbed knot of spite. Under Ryan Wigglesworth, the Aurora Orchestra unpicks Goehr's coagulated spasms and madrigalian figures with clarity and care.
David Alden's Santa Fe production of Radamisto has been gussied up for English National Opera with Lawrence Zazzo as the bafflingly magnanimous Thracian hero. Aside from dressing Tigrane (Ailish Tynan) in a fat-suit and a fez, there are few directorial caprices, leaving the cast free to sniff, stroke and caress the fuchsia-and-gold walls of Gideon Davey's set while Lawrence Cummings whips the orchestra into a frenzy of dancing semiquavers and sexily-swung French trills. Radamisto barely ranks in the Handel top 10, but its many arias are felicitous, most particularly for Zenobia (Christine Rice), who is kidnapped by nasty Tiridate (Ryan McKinny) to the dismay of his wife Polissena (Sophie Bevan). That every word of Christopher Cowell's translation is clear is a mixed blessing, for this is an extremely silly plot, and Alden betrays a fatal lack of conviction in his handling of the dénouement. That aside, the singing and playing are marvellous.
Pub-opera veterans Minotaur Music Theatre fielded a cast of bright young singing students in Stuart Barker's triple bill. Pianists Eunjung Lee and Genevieve Ellis alternated as conductor and orchestra, the former lending poise to Savitri, Holst's lumpy hymn to feminine virtue, the latter bringing pep to Stephen Oliver's wordless comedy, The Waiter's Revenge, with countertenor Jonathan Darbourne outstanding as the hapless Waiter in Hin und Zurück, Hindemith's 10-minute conceit, the highlight in a week of operatic rarities, with Louise Lloyd a polished and perky Helene.
'The Duenna', Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844) from 18 Oct, then touring; 'Promised End', Malvern Theatre (01684 892277) to 21 Oct, then touring; 'Radamisto'(0871 911 0200) to 4 Nov
Anna Picard is off to the pub again, for a new version of The Barber of SevilleReuse content