Preview: May Night, Garsington, Oxfordshire

Rimsky with Cossacks on a summer night
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The Independent Culture

Country-house opera companies aren't just about swank and exclusivity: they can take risks that the big companies can't. When Rimsky-Korsakov's May Night is given an airing at Garsington next week, an obscure gem will be held up to view.

Based on a Gogol short story, this lighthearted work harks back, via Glinka, to the European composers who gave 19th-century Russian music its primary impetus; the commedia dell'arte plot inhabits the world of Figaro, L'elisir d'amore and The Bartered Bride. It is, says that eloquent champion of Russian music Gerard McBurney, "quintessentially the product of a young composer in the springtime of his career, writing a piece which is delightful, funny, and with the most beautiful melodies."

Direction will be in the hands of Olivia Fuchs, recently responsible for a stylish A Midsummer Night's Dream at Covent Garden and a veteran rescuer of underrated Russian works.

Levko and Hanna are in love, but Levko's father - the mayor - wants her for himself. Tensions are resolved by a friendly water-sprite, thus tapping into one of Russian folklore's favourite myths. Or, rather, Ukrainian, since that is where this village drama takes place.

"We've updated it from 1880 to 1930," says Fuchs. "It's still in a Ukrainian village, but while the mayor is a traditional Cossack, the bureaucrats are Soviet." So she's given it a new political dimension? "I've just emphasised something that was there already - a generation gap, with young people determined not to be told by the mayor what to do." So for them Soviet reality is liberating? "I suppose so." Weren't the kulaks being wiped out at about this time? "Not in our production. Nor are we presenting collectivisation." No, this will be upbeat history.

And with a cast of rising young stars, on a set that will trade on the irresistible charm of bucolic Russian life. "Our designs will evoke the world of Chagall, and there will be little houses like Russian dolls, coming out of each other to create a village, with a big triptych house and a tower full of icons and candles. Here the Old Believers still rule."

13 June to 11 July (01865 361 636;