Le Roi Malgre Lui, Grange Park Opera, London

A musical romp fit for a reluctant king
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The Independent Culture

Henry de Valois had blood on his hands: with his mother, Catherine de' Medici, he saw off the Huguenot threat, and was privy to the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572) when he was scarcely 20. Later, as Henri III, he got bumped off himself by a disgruntled cleric.

But in Chabrier's Le Roi malgré lui, he's a cheery young cove. The opera, a merry tale of the French prince elected Poland's king, who then - bored and homesick - connives at his own dethronement, is laced with wit, while verging on operetta and even pantomime.

"The choruses are as good as Traviata," I heard one punter mutter: not wrong, though the music lacks the pithy edge of Chabrier's evergreen spoof, L'Etoile. But it's a romp, and thanks to Grange Park, a thoroughly enjoyable one. Above all, the audience is treated to a visual masterclass from the director, Simon Callow.

Ashley Martin-Davis's curvaceous, rouged ballroom set drew a few gasps, but it's his initial French "court" setting, all greys and beiges, musketeer outfits and gymnastic wall-bars, exquisitely reproduced from 17th-century engravings - that's even more stunning. Against these, Quinny Sacks's choreography wholly lacked any East European flair.

No doubt about the evening's true hero - Chris Davey's lighting. Just as Callow's incisiveness ensures every move, block and freeze fits the music (characters are forever where they should be, and for a reason; watching each select a particular move is an education in itself), so, Davey's focused spotlights catch each plot and dalliance and languorous look with pinpoint precision. Shadows and murk are plotted, never random; tones alter subtly, whites yielding to golds, just as his purple evening sky (at the wayside inn, where the Cossack-like plotters give in) yields to all-embracing night and then chiaroscuro, fingering furniture and illuminating uprights, issuing laterally from a single tavern door.

Chabrier's music, under the veteran conductor Roderick Brydon, was warm, embracing, and finely coloured (each time the villains plotted) by brass, surging up in an ample chorale, and giving just a brief glimpse of the French composer's Wagner obsession. However, two problems presented themselves. The generous pit-side acoustic seems slightly to sharpen the treble sound; and Brydon's old-school wash of string legati never lets this joyous music "breathe" sufficiently.

The cast seems a little workaday: Stephan Loges's Henri, given a to-die-for, mirror-preening entry by Callow, blows it, and rarely engages; the voice, like the presence, feels light for opera, though his opening Romance - hints of Thomas Allen - revealed why he was the winner of the Wigmore International Song Competition. Deryck Hamon, Mid Wales Opera's fine Sarastro, wafted around exuding the lordly malevolence of Tugai Bey (Poland's 17th-century Tartar bogeyman), aiding Callow nicely to play up the pastiche. Kevin Sharp's cuckolded Duc de Fritelli, cast as pig-in-the-middle, proved more pantomime ass than foppish Malvolio in his (mistakenly constant) mustard cavalier hose. But his wonderful initial "Polish" ditty supplied one of the best Chabrier arias of the evening.

Dramatic prize to the Swede Fredrik Strid, a camp little number as the king's sidekick Nangis, who fancies the oiks but wins the bird as well. Strid flattens badly in upper register, but moves better than Sacks's ballet dancers. He plays Nangis as a kind of Callow-clone, full of flickers and rapierish twiddles - or perhaps droll campery is his usual party piece.

Nathaniel Gibbs makes an amiably bluff Caylus. Mary Plazas's waspish Alexina is a hoot, finding her best voice in Chabrier's lovely barcarolle (or gondola) duet. Alison Roddy as Minka, the hapless, dumpy spy-cum-serving wench who gamely blows the whole plot, took the vocal honours, though her best bit, curiously, was when she wafted from offstage over the male chorus.

Finally, Kit Hesketh-Harvey's rhyming translation ("Where's the Duchessa? Let me address her...") could be bettered; and for an older audience faced with upstage audibility problems, there's still a case for surtitles.

To 11 July (020-7320 5408)