Grange Park Opera, Winchester

Mozart meets Ivor Novello
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The Independent Culture

Four years on, Grange Park Opera, the summer festival at Lord Ashburton's estate near Winchester, is poised to expand. The Greek temple auditorium will be extended, linking to the main house, a Wellingtonian 1820s pile, where the smart set dine incongruously below nets shielding them from ramshackle rafters and flaking plaster. Wasfi Kani, the artistic director, is appealing for bricks, cement, concrete, plywood, timber and cladding, and any opera-minded East End brickie who can oblige her might gain a mate for life.

Grange Park's attentive orchestra is strong on ensemble, less distinctive in solo, though the horns deserve singling out. With Messager's Fortunio impending, 2001 could make for a triple success, with an English-language Così fan tutte that hits one's "memorable" list and a serviceable staging of Bellini's (somewhat altered) Romeo and Juliet story, I Capuleti e I Montecchi already notched up.

Directing Così was Janis Kelly, a noted Despina and Dorabella; this was her directing debut. Mozart and Rossini companies should sign her up quick; Kelly has an eye for detail crossing Benny Hill with Tati, a feel for character and subject and a tangible loyalty to the score. An unorthodox quintet of silent "extras" ­ two Forsteresque shy young ladies, a Pinkerton-like sea captain apt for the chic blue Ivor Novello 1950s seaside hotel set (by David Roger and Gemma Fripp), a deferential Sikh toff and a slightly too ubiquitous old lady (Diana Payne-Myers), were hilariously folded on and off stage, only once detracting from a poignant aria.

Jonathan Best (Don Alfonso), and Linda Kitchen (Despina) are terrific voices, armed with the range of Gambon and comic timing of Julie Walters respectively. The male voice trios were first rate. Ferrando (Alfred Boe) slightly overprojected; Mark Stone's Guglielmo ("It's the way of all you women to be fickle") was a Best in the making. Neat lighting switches indoors-outdoors made for contrast. Increasingly beguiling ­ in low register too ­ was Sally Matthews' Fiordiligi, her duets with Dorabella (Nerys Jones) and Ferrando enchanting.

Kelly plays several recitatives down a hotel telephone, and makes the two beaux raffish Lambretta boyos straight out of Amarcord or I Vitelloni, grafting some hilarious macaronics on to Ann Ridler's already priceless libretto. If ever there were a staging fans of They Think It's All Over could hoot at, this is it.

For the Guelph-Ghibelline gang wars of I Capuleti e I Montecchi, the director Dominic Cooke and the designer Robert Innes Hopkins came up with an Al Capone setting in panelled wood, artfully stripped away (literally trashed in a shoot-out). Brindley Sherratt's admirable bass suited Capellio, shouldering the blame in Bellini's clipped ending. Finnur Bjarnason, a stylish Icelandic tenor destined for Glyndebourne, made a smooth thug of Tebaldo. Some moves looked thinly plotted, and Andrew Mayor's Francisco underdefined (given the absence of a Nurse), but Bellini's extraordinary extended scena for Romeo's tombside farewells, aerated by dramatic silences, could scarcely have been more affecting. Laurels to Susan Bickley, a Romeo both passionate and melting, to Emma Bell's slightly domineering Giulietta, and to both conductors, Mark Shanahan (Capuleti) and Robert Dean (Così), for whom the upper strings played like heroes.

The festival runs to 13 July, 'Fortunio' from 29 June; 01420 561 090. Offers of materials: 020-7320 5568, e-mail Susan Bickley sings the Ghost in Birtwistle's 'The Last Supper' at Glyndebourne from 4 August