MUSIC / No break with routine: Nick Kimberley reviews Pimlico Opera's La Traviata

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The Independent Culture
WHAT ARE touring opera companies for? Leaving aside the national and regional companies that tour from a fixed base, they serve two main functions: to bring a version - usually somewhat miniaturised - of the opera house experience to locations otherwise starved of opera; and to develop ways of staging that radically differ from that same opera house experience.

The two functions are not mutually exclusive, and Pimlico Opera is one company that hopes to do a bit of both. Pimlico plays its share of black-tie functions, and perhaps they are essential to a company that, until this year, received no Arts Council funding. The risk is that the necessary pursuit of sponsors and country-house patrons tailors the work to suit the tastes of those with the money: dangerous enough when the funding comes from a public body, more so when those holding the purse-strings see your performances as providing a nice night out for staff and clients.

At the first of three Royal Geographical Society performances of Verdi's La Traviata, Pimlico's audience seemed a mix of those there for a bit of a do, and those who'd come to see the opera: not that different from your average opera house audience, in other words. There was more than usually insistent chatter through the orchestral preludes, and someone behind me refused to rattle their bracelets in time to the music; but you can't necessarily criticise an opera company for its audience.

Verdi's opera, though, is a bitter attack on the modes and manners of polite society; and a willingness to offend, or at least to abrade your audience, is no bad thing. This is where a company like Pimlico can score, taking imaginative risks that might be avoided by a company with a more fixed constituency and a larger budget to protect. Add to that the inventiveness required to present opera on stages barely larger than a handkerchief, and you have the potential for something a little disruptive of operatic routine.

Sadly, Stephen Langridge's production offered few escapes from routine. It is not only that the tiny stage made any attempt at co-ordinated stage movement resemble a village-hall staging of Aida. Nor does it really matter that the lecture-hall acoustic gave a Sally Army oom-pah-pah to the small (14piece) orchestra: Verdi himself was rather fond of rustic wind bands. What matters is to turn such 'problems' to advantage; and while Wasfi Kani's conducting, and the clear, emotive singing of the mostly young cast ensured that the music emerged fresh, the stage pictures consisted of a sequence of conventional exits and entrances through two door-frames - and little else. A little deconstructionist business with hand-held mirrors - no doubt a mark of the characters' preoccupation with keeping up appearances - seemed too much like a hand-me-down Coliseumism.

Opera needs companies like Pimlico, to rescue us from the reflexive grand gestures and to rediscover the intimate and personal in works that have become conventional. One of the company's next projects is a rare Shostakovich musical. Perhaps that will test the company, and its audience, more than this Traviata.

Final performance at the Royal Geographical Society, London SW7 (Booking: 081-977 4869). Then tours.