OPERA / Three rounds of wry: Nick Kimberley finds wit if not brevity in Julian Grant's new work, A Family Affair, at the Almeida Opera

JULIAN GRANT is a brave, and perhaps foolhardy, man. In a programme note introducing his opera A Family Affair (premiered as part of Almeida Opera), he invites listeners to bear in mind Janacek's Jenufa or Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Not only that, he claims that the 'experimental music- theatre pieces' that he composed a few years ago at Canada's Banff Music Theatre studio cleansed his system of 'the expected manner of my academic training', which, Grant suggests, prescribes the following conditions for music theatre: 'usually set inside someone's head, anguish preferable, humour possible only if not funny, no stage action and, as a point of honour, mystify or alienate your audience'. My work, he implies, is much better than that: think Janacek, think Shostakovich.

It's for the audience to decide whether Grant has succeeded, but full marks for at least being able to caricature so much of what we get in the way of new opera. In fact, Grant's caricature might serve very well as a critique of the other new work premiered by Almeida Opera, Kevin Volans's The Man who Strides the Wind. But has Grant succeeded where Volans failed?

Up to a point, but not wholly, at least not if you subscribe to the axiom that brevity is the soul of wit. A Family Affair comes in three acts, each taking place in essentially the same set. You always run the risk of losing your audience's attention in an interval; to have two intervals invites disaster, especially as it takes ages to get people in and out of the Almeida auditorium. And then each of those acts seems to linger more than necessary. What should be a short, sharp jab in the ribs ends up lasting - with those intervals - only a little less than three hours: Janacek would have thought it long- winded.

This is the debit side of the ledger. On the credit side, Nick Dear's text (based on Ostrovsky's mid-19th-century satire on the Russian merchant class) provides genuine humour, even if there is a suspicion that, so grateful are opera audiences for a laugh, lines like 'My piles are giving me gyp' and 'You look French to the letter' get more than their due. On the other hand, the fact that you can hear those lines so clearly pays tribute to the cast, each member of which displays true comic flair. Geoffrey Dolton's slightly nasal vibrato is an exact fit for the ghastly arriviste Lazar: while Nuala Willis makes a magnificent harridan of the matchmaker Ustinya, a caricature of which Gillray would have been proud. Martin Duncan's direction knows when to go for broke and when to opt for reticence. Neil Irish's design is essentially realist clutter, although there is some unnecessary business at the rear of the stage with the singers and those mirrors with lights round that signify 'backstage'.

Grant's music is ironic and parodic, with lots of funny burps and sneezes from the winds - a little like a Benny Hill mickey- take of a silent film soundtrack. Onomatopoeia plays its part, and often the humour amounts to little more than a wry smile that lines like 'They're all gobsmacked' are sung operatically - but a wry smile is better than no smile at all, and there are many moments when Grant's high spirits raise something much more raucous. The music is well served by the Almeida Ensemble, conducted by Nicholas Kok: they attack with all the gusto necessary to pull off this kind of low comedy in a high culture. Laughs have been hard to come by throughout opera's history; Julian Grant has at least added a few more to the list.

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