Garsington Opera, Garsington Oxfordshire

A fine Italian job
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The Independent Culture

Don't advertise your eligible teenage daughter in The Mail on Sunday. The second item of this year's operafest at Garsington ­ that magical 17th-century Oxfordshire hillside setting planted by Ottoline Morrell and adored by TS Eliot ­ is La Gazzetta, a needlessly dumped Rossini gem whose UK premiere Leonard Ingrams and an inspired Italian team ­ fired by Fabrizio Scipioni ­ have turned into an unmitigated triumph.

How does an apparent hodge-podge, a cobbling together of self- borrowings, generate a virtual masterpiece? Well, Handel managed it often enough (just look at Deborah). La Gazzetta's tautness stems from Carlo Goldoni's Il matrimonio concorso (1763), a quickfire play of unerring witty concision pirated by half a dozen composers pre-Rossini's 1816 version, midway between The Barber of Seville and Cinderella. The opera's plot, if arguably its weakness too, centres on a Jonson-cum-Molièresque patron converted into Don Pomponio Storione, a more predictable Neapolitan buffo (Donald Maxwell, whose motorised arrival on the Garsington stage crosses Mr Toad with the Royal Shakespeare Company's classic 1950s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor).

But the flood of well-drawn characters is terrific ­ the splendidly pouty, marriageable bird (the Canadian Carla Huhtanen, tinged with vivid, fine-toned, accurately-placed coloratura); the resourceful boyfriend (Robert Poulton, Garsington's erstwhile Falstaff, who grasps an audience in his hand with a glint or half gesture); and the "B" pair, the opportune but more idealistic Alberto (Mark Milhofer, whose baroque skills wring gold from semimelodic Rossini) and the shyer Doralice (a beautifully mellow mezzo, the Danish-based Norwegian Tuva Semmingsen).

Plus there are further larger-than-life cameos from the "hotel staff" ­ the manager Andrew Slater, whose self-effacing touches nicely offset Maxwell's gaucheries, and Kate Flowers is on-form as a receptionist, who makes Sybil Fawlty sound like an amateur.

Marco Gandini's all-Italian staging team, including Edoardo Sanchi's ingenious bricked-up Garsington extension, showed an eagle eye for detail that would cheer La Scala. Invidious to pick out the orchestra, but Andrew Webster made an additional character of Rossini's gorgeous clarinet lines, and Chris West's slick double bass also starred. Corrado Rovaris's punchy handling of the score and textures sounded like Paul Daniel on peak form.

Performances continue till 7 July (01865 361636)

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