Die Schweigsame Frau, Garsington Opera Festival, Oxford

Marriage à la Strauss

Like Kathleen Ferrier, Maria Cebotari, who sang the lead under Karl Böhm in the original 1935 Dresden staging of Die Schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman), died tragically young, at 39. Born in Moldova (Bessarabia) in 1912, she partnered Gigli and became the darling of Salzburg (under Bruno Walter), Berlin, Vienna and La Scala. Karajan had signed her for his pre-war Salzburg Figaro.

The opera was a hit, but attacks on its librettist, Stefan Zweig, kept the punters away. Was it Strauss's Falstaff? Partly. His brushstrokes lack Verdi's subtle variety: more Jackson Pollock splurge than insightful Bruegel. The orchestration is glorious, but thick; the detail - witty bassoon patter, affectionately nursing clarinet, sardonic flutes, reassuring solo violin - is sporadic and often buried. Ben Jonson's play original has succumbed to Zweig's observant humour, if less pungent satire.

But Sir Morosus (Stephen Richardson), who yearns for companionable marriage with a prattle-free spouse, is, not unlike Falstaff, the victim of his own misguided yearnings and the butt of others' japes. Strauss peppers the story with character vignettes, in the manner of Ariadne. The Cebotari role, Aminta, who lures Morosus up the aisle - in Jonson, she's a disguised boy - and then henpecks him so that he'll abandon her and restore a golden legacy to his nephew (the tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, in much better voice) is a Zerbinetta and a half. The Act II sextet - the passages in which Aminta (the excellent Christine Buffle) and Isotta (the Australian Kathryn McCusker, equally glorious) soar over the rest in ensemble - and the goodnight scene are top-drawer, not B-grade, Strauss.

So what's wrong? Not much. David Fielding's bizarre staging (aboard a battleship, with helipad, that metamorphoses into a pink, dolphin-bedecked liner) is as frantic as Fellini but riddled with invention. His party high-jinks occasionally exhaust you, but most of it is great fun. Strauss saw it as lyric-comedy-cum-farce, and that's what you get in the score: a lot of wallpaper Strauss, parody, self-parody and endless drive, all of which Garsington's fine orchestra under Elgar Howarth ignites with aplomb. Only when Fielding tips over into (accurate) Pavarotti-lookalike or overeggs a joke (the hilariously chloroformed batman/ housekeeper, Rebecca de Pont Davies) does one begin to writhe.

Richardson's Morosus, all Captain Birds Eye, "crushed like a shellfish", never quite drives home the pathos (he is not helped by his fireaxe talisman). The beautiful Act II aria, as Morosus contemplates his newfound happiness, is submerged by legover.

But the Ariadne-troupe vignettes are a treat: all three girls (Katherine Haataja is the third) are diverting; the baritones Wyn Pencarreg, as a notary, and D'Arcy Bleiker, as a drunken sea-salt, are both in superb voice.

Best of all is Matthew Rose, merging Priest-cum-Chief Justice with Neil of The Young Ones, wrapped in a wonderful bass voice; what a find for Covent Garden's Vilar programme next season. Russell Smythe's Barber lacks the witty Wozzeck-like vocal-dramatic edge of Wolfgang Schöne or Hermann Prey, but his steady pair of hands makes a welcome contrast to the surrounding freneticism. A good night out? You bet.

The Garsington festival runs to 12 July (01865 361636; www.garsingtonopera.org)

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