Having it both ways at once : Music : The Marriage of Figaro MTL, BBC2 / Travelling Opera, Barbican

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The Independent Culture
Take your choice: Figaro as city wide-boy, Figaro as Harlequin. One way or the other he is meeting more people than ever right now, as Music Theatre London's Mozart has reached BBC2 while Travelling Opera sets out on a national tour. Though the st yles are opposite, the scale is the same. Tiny companies like these may be beyond the Arts Council pale, but they have made a huge impact on public attitudes. It's only a decade since Stockholm Folk Opera, godfather of them all, delighted or outraged peo ple with its ultradramatic, miniaturised Aida - synthesiser instead of brass, and not an elephant in sight. Now look at us, lapping up two-day Ring cycles and TV soaps in easy instalments, newly sure that size isn't everything.

Music Theatre London has inherited the outrage, as well as the drama. If you don't like Figaro being the valet to one Sir Cecil Portico, who also has a bored socialite wife and a godson whom he despatches to the Falklands, you won't have survived last week's three episodes. The women's voices were thin, and vocal display was beyond everybody's skills. On the other hand the company delivers an immediacy and momentum that carries all before it, and thrives on the close-ups that usually kill televised opera singing. For once the formal conventions of ensemble opera shaded smoothly into those of bedroom farce. It wasn't quite as funny as the studio audience's laughter made out, but the timing of slammed doors and double-takes was neat enough.

Score and plot were brutally cut as MTL crammed the last two acts into an hour. Cherubino was a rare sight, Barbarina and her aria about the lost pin disappeared altogether. While the loss of favourite moments probably irritated most opera lovers, the tighter pace and energy made up for them. You can always wait for Travelling Opera to turn up. Anybody who went to the Barbican on Thursday after "discovering" Figaro on television will have had fresh music and sub-plots to enjoy. But while the scoring was a touch subtler and the singing in a different league, the theatrical experience didn't have the same flair or concentration.

This was a decent, traditional production, clearly translated and expounded, with its roots in the commedia dell'arte and its designs from the 18th century. It gave its own twist to the sexual jealousies with a Figaro who looked years older than his wifeand his rivals. But it was the kind of staging content, say, to leave Figaro and Cherubino looking simply cheerful about the latter being sent off to join the army - no hint of covert motives or mixed feelings. There was a real live Barbarina, properly fresh, awkward and strong in Candida Langston's portrayal, unflustered by the corny rustic accent she had to adopt. For emotional immediacy, however, Heather Lorimer's singing of the Countess's arias was out in a world of its own, with only Heather Shipp's Cherubino coming anywhere close to it.

Travelling Opera, like MTL, has given more overwhelming performances in its time. Still, it was MTL in the end that pulled off the biggest and unlikeliest coup. At the climax, as the Countess emerged from her disguise, hilarity froze in a long silence. You just watched the faces register all they had failed to get away with. The musical sacrifice was, well, outrageous. The theatrical impact, on the other hand, was unforgettable, a long moment of dangerous and heart-searching magic. You take yo ur choice? You can have it both ways.

nTravelling Opera is on tour with `The Marriage of Figaro' and `La Boheme' until March. Music Theatre London's `Marriage of Figaro' is released on BBC video.

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