Minor's major work

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MOZART HIMSELF was never a Finta (or, being male, a Finto) Semplice - a "mock simpleton", which is the title of one of those early operas he precociously penned while scarcely out of nappies, under the watchful eye of his astute father, Leopold.

Quite the contrary. By the ages of 11 and 12 the young Amadeus had shown himself a true beloved of the Gods; a composer, already, of breathtaking genius. Just the opening bars of his chirpy first symphony confirms that. Yet knowing only Mozart's boyhood opera Bastien and Bastienne, warbled on LP by a dinky pair of Vienna boys, I was totally gobsmacked by the past week's feast of youthful operatic Mozart.

Two of his stunning boyhood stageworks have just been dusted down: La Finta Semplice at the Buxton Opera Festival, nestling beneath its glorious Derbyshire moorland backdrop, and Apollo et Hyacinthus by the newly formed Classical Opera Company at the Royal College of Music in Kensington, a quill's throw from the Royal Albert Hall.

These youthful Mozartian peccadilloes need no apologist. Each is a compact minor masterpiece. The former takes its title from the piece's principal lady (her exquisitely soaring arias sung here by Janis Kelly), a madam of means who feigns naivety in letting herself be wooed by two brothers - the one, Don Cassandro (Jonathan Best) a randy, streetwise soldier, the other, Don Polidoro (the deliciously vulnerable Paul Nilon), the real "simpleton" of the opera.

Much of the fun comes from the zany shenanigans of this ludicrous double- wooing. Christopher Wood's designs - tiresomely phallic but all in gorgeous blues and greens, with ingenious shifting perspectives - delighted the eye. Aidan Lang's witty direction was usually tight and canny. Guido Johannes Rumstadt's conducting teased out, time and again, the exquisite skein of this bewitching score. The ensembles of Cosi peeped out in embryo; even Count Almaviva was prefigured in Best's drunkenly philandering Cassandro - who finally wins the bird. Simone, the batman (David Stephenson), has whiffs of Figaro potential.

To cap even the delights of Buxton, the Classical Opera Company's polished debut in Apollo et Hyacinthus proved a pearl beyond price. Just nothing seemed to go wrong. Yet here was a work of staggering beauty, riddled with sweet noises like Caliban's enchanted isle. The Philadelphia-born countertenor Lawrence Zazzo delighted eye and ear as Apollo; Ryland Angel was a pouting Zephyrus (the jealous west wind, villain of the piece), and Sarah Fox as Hyacinthus radiated presence and sang everyone off the stage. Sets (Atlanta Duffy), lighting (Bruno Poet) and direction (Olivia Fuchs) were top-rate. The backstage crew deserved an Oscar, and Father Rufinus Widl - the un-crabby Salzburg professor of syntax who furnished Wolfgang with his artfully sanitised libretto - a laurel wreath. Apollo et Hyacinthus may be the most poignant "school play" ever written. No wonder all Vienna went nuts about the boy.

Apollo et Hyacinthus runs till 31 July (0171-589-8212).

Roderic Dunnett