MUSIC / Make love, not war: Robert Maycock on Le Roi malgre lui at Edinburgh Festival

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For those who knew, it should have been the big one. Emmanuel Chabrier used to be known simply as the popular composer of Espana. Lately, his personal blend of the tender and the robust, his flair for supple rhythm and colourful harmony, have caught on with singers and stage people. Opera North had a hit with L'Etoile. But the treasure of Le Roi malgre lui, Chabrier at his peak, lay buried still; apart from a couple of orchestral dances, it hadn't been touched for more than a century.

A confused plot and a worse libretto are supposed to take the blame. Yet, listening to one great thing after another at Opera North's first ever British staging at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh last week, who could have cared? It was enough just to enjoy the scrunchy chains of chords, the bouncy choruses and soaring tunes. The company didn't agree, though, and replaced the entire story. There the trouble began.

At least the version by Jeremy Sams and Michael Wilcox tells its tale clearly. It is set in Central Europe during more hopeful days, when Communist cells plotted to overthrow corrupt monarchies, and the reluctant king of the title is a leader who has it both ways. To deal with a profusion of duets, two love affairs run their course and get examined at length. Paradoxically, it is all too simple now, and presents long strings of ensembles where nothing happens to move the plot along. Most of the characters are stock, and the women's psychology is baffling.

All this is compounded by the quaint production values of Sams's own staging. He has put it in some operatic never- never land of strutting aristos, merry peasants and bristling moustaches. You would never guess that Chabrier said it was so sexy they would be 'making babies' in the audience. This is a man's world: the more explicitly gay it is, the better, and the funnier. A copious supply of witty lines saves the show from completely belittling the score.

Otherwise this is the musicians' night. Paul Daniel conducted with dash and vigour. Justin Lavender and Russell Smythe seize the early lyrical chances with the right lightness of timbre and ardour. Juliet Booth comes into her own as one of the formidable female leads, and Rosa Mannion has a good shot at the tricky soprano showpieces.

For a model of Chabrier singing, you needed to go to the Saturday recital at the Queen's Hall by Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson. An entire half programme of Chabrier and Gounod would make any Francophile salivate, and for Gounod - the great precursor - Lott and Johnson rewarded expectations with their sensitivity to poetic atmosphere. But Chabrier was properly the culmination. The suggestive leaps and impatient harmonies found the soprano in confident vocal condition. These morning recitals are a strange, time-warped survival. But this time the packed house reacted with notable intensity and rushed off in high spirits - no doubt to make a baby or two at the first chance.

'Le Roi' opens on 5 Oct at Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre (Box-office: 0532 459351). Then touring