Atalanta, Royal College of Music, London

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The Independent Culture

It's quite a thing to stage a Handel opera that virtually no one has seen – and quite a responsibility. So when Christopher Cowell describes Atalanta in his directorial note as an "anodyne" interpretation of the myth ending in a "shameless piece of political puffery", you wonder why – apart from its rarity – he's bothering to do it at all.

Handel wrote this work at speed to celebrate the wedding of the Prince of Wales in 1736. The best-known part of the Atalanta story – in which the aggressively chaste princess is lured into marriage by the mesmerising sight of three golden apples – does not figure here: what does is a conventional drama of noble lovers mutually misunderstood, going in plebeian disguise, then joyfully and publicly being united – which sounds perfect for an 18th-century royal wedding.

Cowell places his brightly coloured action in Brighton, with his noble lovers Meleagro and Atalanta slumming it among housing-estate kids (his version of Handel's rustic locals) Irene and Aminta. This country pair, whose romance shadows the royal one, are straight out of Little Britain. While the overture plays, the royal lovers email each other from their laptops, and when Meleagro goes in search of Atalanta, he shows people her face on his mobile. As an updating, this is plausible.

Forgotten it may be, but this opera was written in the same period as Handel's masterpieces Ariodante and Alcina, so it's no surprise that its music should frequently be sublime.

But it is a tall order for a young cast, and a directorial challenge in that much of it takes place on an elevated emotional plane. By deciding to play much of it for laughs, and by sending up the finale by turning its wedding into a glitzy stunt for "Arcadia TV", Cowell sets himself a problem that he only half solves.

But the half that works is wonderful, thanks to a talented bunch of actors led by three outstanding young singers. As Irene, mezzo Stephanie Lewis holds the stage with a combination of raunchy comedy and finely modulated singing, while sopranos Ruby Hughes and Madeleine Pierard bring Atalanta and Meleagro to palpitating life. Pierard's sound is the purest tempered steel, while Hughes invests her coloratura arias with ravishing beauty. And, under Laurence Cummings's baton, the period band plays its heart out.

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