What's that got to do with the price of fish? Having seen and enjoyed the professional UK premiere of Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery, the answer to the question is - quite a lot.
Prokofiev's robust, some would say overblown, take on Richard Brinsley Sheridan's ballad opera The Duenna has everything to do with the price of fish. The entire plot is driven by it; a marriage of convenience is fuelled by it; and when the curtain rises on Act I of Daniel Slater and Robert Innes Hopkins's Glyndebourne staging, there are enough crates of it to keep the restaurants and picnickers stocked for an entire season of dinner intervals.
Something doesn't smell quite right, though. Prokofiev and Sheridan? A Russian opera buffo? A contradiction in terms, surely? Well, yes and no. The lengthy, somewhat laboured exposition of Prokofiev's Betrothal could wipe the smiles off those of us accustomed to the speed of Sheridan's rapier wit.
Prokofiev's fertile score begins with one of his fabulous vaulting themes, heavy and heady with Russian ardour, while the setting is Seville - and an element of culture clash is apparent.
But the musical style matters less than the speed of its reflexes. Prokofiev can turn an 18th-century minuet with the best of them - he'd been practised at doing so since the days of his "Classical" Symphony No 1. So his score bows and curtseys if not to the manner born then certainly to the manner well-schooled. But the musical language is weightier than Sheridan suggests, and it takes a while to adjust to the coarser, folksier nature of the themes.
That said, the romance of the piece is in good hands; no one does voluptuous quite like Prokofiev. The veiled shimmer of his orchestrations is as ever something else, and the way in which these gorgeous lyric flights are constantly interrupted by the mundane, the way the highly distinctive vocal writing breaks from song into speech into chit-chat, is one of the most characterful aspects of the score. It's a score that Vladimir Jurowski plainly loves, and he coaxes and cajoles a fabulous range of seductive and coquettish and downright bawdy colours from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It can never have sounded better.
As for the mainly Russian cast - essential in pointing the colloquialisms of the libretto (by the composer and his then lover Mira Mendelson; no wonder his score rises so to the romance) - this ensemble knocks spots off any currently fielded by the Kirov Opera.
At the still centre of Sheridan's confusion of stolen identities and wilful deceptions is Viacheslav Voynarovskiy's wonderfully dupable Don Jerome, a lime-green mountain of mutton dressed as lamb. He can have few rivals in conveying mounting disbelief. And his virtuoso display on tuned glasses must be the quirkiest closing ensemble in 20th-century opera.
Sergei Alexashkin (Mendoza, the fish merchant) and Alexandra Durseneva (the Duenna) are the perfect match of lust and opportunism - the vain and the ugly, booming Russian basso and fruity mezzo. Then there is a cracking Russian tenor, Vsevolod Grivnov (with singeing top Bs), wooing the prettily vibrant (and subtle) soprano of Lyubov Petrova (as Don Jerome's daughter Louisa). Late replacement Andrey Breus as Ferdinand proved a suitably forceful baritone for wooing the feisty Nino Surguladze's Clara - whose nun disguise fooled no one.
Slater and Innes Hopkins, co-directing and co-designing, have created a set that is at once a false theatre proscenium and a sun-bleached Seville street. To their credit, they manage to turn an opera that appears to have everything but the ability to make us laugh into one than does. Three maskers serve as their on-stage helpers. Prokofiev, the ballet composer, is much in evidence, too. And when Don Jerome dreams of marrying his daughter off to a fish, the ensuing pantomime suggests that he alone might be counting the cost.
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