Emilia di Liverpool, St George's Hall, Liverpool<field name="starRating">threestar</field>

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Emilia di Liverpool may sound like an Italo-Scouse joke. An operatic rarity, composed by Donizetti in 1824 and revised four years later, it enjoyed a revival in 1957 when Joan Sutherland sang the title role. It has since had a couple of outings in Liverpool, and, launching the city's celebrations as European Capital of Culture, Emilia has been dusted down and polished up by Opera Europe, part of the Liverpool-based European Opera Centre.

A training ground for young Europeans in all aspects of opera, the Centre enjoys strong political and financial links with the European Union. So after half a dozen performances at St George's Hall, Emilia makes an appearance in Gdansk and Bremen, two other cities under the 2008 European cultural focus.

Emilia di Liverpool was composed in Naples and, with its spoken dialogue, belongs to a genre rather peculiar to the city. It's a rum tale, implausibly set among the mountains where Emilia is doing penance for having briefly eloped with Federico, an affair that killed her mother. Giovanni Pacor conducts a new edition, combining elements of the 19th-century manuscripts and featuring some tedious play with language and silly musical jokes.

There are two casts alternating, although three singers get the chance to shine as Emilia. I caught the Belgian Martine Reyners who, although she has promising vocal and interpretative powers, was somewhat unsympathetic in the title role. She was formidable, though, in her breathtaking aria-finale.

Vincenzo Taormina made a bluff and breezy job of Don Romualdo, while Cozmin Sime turned in an eloquent Claudio di Liverpool. Among the smaller parts, Karine Lavorel was an engaging and vocally poised Luigia. Pacor's lively but controlled conducting secured colourful and shapely characterisation from the small orchestra.

Many of the Romantic elements of bel canto Italian opera are suggested: storm, darkness and breast-beating, as well as a graveyard duel. In terms of narrative it's a nonsense; musically it's a ragbag; and, dramatically, in this insipid production by Ignacio Garcia, it's a wash-out. Elisabetta Pian's paltry designs and props don't add up to much either. Where this Emilia does score, however, is in some earnest and convincing ensemble work.

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