L'Equivoco Stravagante / Cherevichki, Garsington Opera, Garsington Manor, Oxford

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The Independent Culture

Is it below the belt to send up Rossini? He was a masterful tease himself - so the answer is a resounding "no". But voyeur beware: the Rossini pitfalls are plain as Grange Park discovered to its cost recently with its Cenerentola.

Is it below the belt to send up Rossini? He was a masterful tease himself - so the answer is a resounding "no". But voyeur beware: the Rossini pitfalls are plain as Grange Park discovered to its cost recently with its Cenerentola.

Now Garsington has served up the UK premiere of L'Equivoco Stravagante. This is early Rossini - 1811 - ridden with rustic foible and earthy giggles. Garsington's director/designer, Massimo Gasparon, who won accolades for his staging of Goldmark's The Queen of Sheba at Wexford, is both wild card and intelligent, seasoned hand. His tongue-in-cheek take on L'Equivoco is outrageously - yes, extravagantly - OTT: Andrew Shore's Gamberotto, the opera's jumped-up peasant paterfamilias, sports Louis XIV regal couture and embraces embryonic Enlightenment learning with the aplomb of Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme. His teenage daughter Ernestina (Elena Belfiore) mixes her Plato with a seductive hot potato of a tenor tutor, Ermanno (Colin Lee). Henry Waddington - a hoot - relies overmuch on clichéd camp gesture as the dimpled, duped, incipient pantaloon suitor Buralicchio, but sings recitative like a king, while the baritone Darren Abrahams as Frontino cheerfully pimps for his rival.

Given Rossini's denouement involves kidding Buralicchio into believing Ernestina is actually a sexpot Cherubino (worse, a "castrato"), while Gasbarri's spicy libretto reels off juicy nether-region innuendos, L'Equivoco cries out for paradox and send-up. That's what Gasparon gives us: bizarre Lullian perruques (the biggest joke was a tilt at French libertarian sexual mores) and props; a book-lined spoof set in wedding-cake whites, where Shore pouts, potters, presides, tuts and wheezes in crimson-and-gold and Waddington struts in peacock turquoise, latterly like trysting lovers; plus a male chorus like a Madame de Pompadour drag act whose first basso burst was hilarious.

You can argue that overlarding the jokiness detracts from Rossinian finesse. Yes and no. Yet in Act II, when the lovelorn tutor gets his mellifluous big moment, Lee singlehandedly pulled the whole thing to its enlightened senses. The Ermanno-Ernestina wooing - as the sex-change nonsense crescendoes around them - suddenly emerges in charmed focus. Belfiore has a beautifully expressive face: Rossini's unnaturally low twists sometimes eluded this super Genoese mezzo (as they did Kathryn McCusker's Rosalia), but Belfiore won through by dint of her alluring personality.

Another UK premiere, Garsington's staging of Tchaikovsky's Gogol-based Cherevichki, needed the focused wit of a Gasparon (here, Olivia Fuchs directed): Roderick Earle's feckless Devil and Frances McCafferty's warm-voiced Witch need better ideas than a red forked-tail and broomstick. But Elgar Howarth's orchestra made the Tchaikovskian nerves tingle. D'Arcy Bleiker's grand vizier, Stuart Kale's schoolteacher and both lovers (Adrian Dwyer and big-voiced Anne-Sophie Duprels) delighted - as did a rich Russian bass (Leonid Zimnenko) as Oksana's father, Chub. Not flawless, but a tasty catch for Garsington.

Festival runs to 11 July

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