OPERA Cherubin Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture
For this year's New Year celebrations, Covent Garden has chosen to revive Tim Albery's lively 1994 production of Massenet's "comedie chante" Cherubin. This attracted considerable publicity at its first outing owing to the abrupt departure of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky just prior to the opening night. Apparently the conductor was unhappy with aspects of Albery's production, but last night it was certainly very hard to see why. Cherubin does not attempt anything especially profound or innovative. It's a lighthearted sequel to The Marriage of Figaro, following Cherubino's adventures as a young soldier and compulsive womaniser. Save for the title role, the cast largely comprises stock characters, and the plot is basically a pretext for stylish set numbers and flashy orchestral invention.

Tim Albery seems to have understood all this very well. Rather than vainly searching for non-existent psychological depths, his production does everything to make the comedy function swiftly and elegantly. It's also enormous fun to watch. Antony McDonald's sets are colourful, quirky and lightly humorous, most especially Act 2's tacky "Costa del Crime" Hotel exterior peppered with illuminated eggshells and neon balconies. Appropriately enough, the interior of this monstrosity in Act 3 turns out to be drab and shabby, replete with hideously decorated black wallpaper peeling at the edges. The opening chorus of red-faced cooks manically polishing hundreds of perfectly clean plates is also a visual delight.

Musically, this revival had a head start with the brilliant choice of John Eliot Gardiner as conductor. Gardiner's love of and expertise in the lighter corners of the French repertoire is well known (witness his excellent new Chabrier disc). Cherubin found him on top form, highlighting the many felicities of Massenet's rich textures yet maintaining their essential transparency and tightness so that the voices were clearly heard at all times. Massenet is rarely a subtle composer, and some of the rather insistent mock-Spanish music in the central act could easily become tiresome, but Gardiner cleverly managed to avoid over-playing this side of things.

The cast of Cherubin is largely a very strong one. Robert Lloyd, playing the hero's Philosopher-Mentor, took a while to warm to his role - he only really got going in Act 3 and I could not always discern his diction very easily. The title role is sung en travestie, and was brilliantly covered by the American mezzo Susan Graham. Her portrayal of Cherubin's multiple infatuations and final discovery of true love was touching without being coy, and her voice has a nice range of colour, light and agile but full- bodied when required. A highlight of the evening is Elizabeth Futral's amusingly sultry rendering of L'Ensoleillad, a flirtatious Spanish ballerina with whom Cherubin has a one-night stand in Act 2. William Dazeley, Thomas Allen and Ryland Davies all make strong appearances in supporting roles as Cherubin's three rivals, perpetually challenging him to duels. Alison Hagley does wonders for the short but important role of Nina, with whom Cherubin finally elopes. Her letter aria in Act 1 was beautifully sustained and is one of the treasures of the opera, a haunting melody that always sounds as if it might turn into the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann. Covent Garden have done us all a favour in putting this piece back into the repertory. Cherubin is a thing of joy, an evening of froth, bubble and excitement which should be seen without delay.

Further perfs Sat, 7, 10, 14 Jan (0171-304 4000)