Maskarade, Royal Opera House, London

A giddy whirl in the game of love
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The opening moments of his staging are, if you like, hungover from the overture. Someone is hanging from the chandelier. It turns out to be Cupid (Richard Gauntlett) in a grubby tutu, a little worse for wear after a heavy night of matchmaking at round one of the masquerade. Leander and Henrik - master and servant - are the worse for wear, too. Both plan to revisit the masquerade that very night because this a place where no distinctions are made between class, age, or gender, where all are equal and all are welcome.

That's really all there is to Ludwig Holberg's play from which Nielsen's opera was adapted. The only party-pooper is Leander's father, the terminally stuffy Jeronimus (Brindley Sherratt) who represents the old orders, the old ways. In Act I he has an aria of regret at changing fashions. Whenever he enters a room a flurry of snow, a blizzard of discontent, follows him through the doorway.

Pountney and his designer, Johan Engels, have gone all-out for this off-kilter surrealism. Everywhere you look there are doors trying to shut people out. But the masquerade is inclusive; and so is Nielsen's music, the whole score driven by the unstoppable urge to sing and dance. Its fizz and passion is irresistible. The ensemble which closes Act I is worthy to stand alongside anything in Mozart.

And there are singers here with the wherewithal to underline that. Michael Schade's ardent lyric tenor ensures that Leander's lucky star shines over just such ensembles and there is a terrifically charismatic performance from the American Kyle Ketelsen as the manservant Henrik. Also notable, yet again, is Emma Bell as Leonora, Leander's love interest. She has so much voice and spirit as to make one regret Nielsen didn't give her more to do.

But this is an ensemble piece, and once the masquerade is in full swing, director, designer, and choreographer need to pull something special out of the bag. This is where one really needs a lighter touch than Pountney's. Would that his direction of this all-singing, all-dancing, mating game of a finale were as inventive as the rhyming couplets of his English translation. "Shall I go as the Marquis de Sade or Douglas Bader" is one of his memorably anarchic efforts. But Pountney is always heavy-handed with visual comedy - especially when marshaling large numbers of bodies. Marie-Jeanne Lecca's elaborate costumes help - "Elvis" and "Marilyn" pop up among the iconic "disguises"; but Renato Zanella's routine choreography adds nothing.

Still, there is always Nielsen's wonderful music. And Pountney does at least deliver a saucy pay-off. As the Grim Reaper-like figure of Doctor Mors (Martin Winkler) is being lowered symbolically into his coffin, up pops a naked woman to reassure us that the pleasures of the flesh may not be quite as transient as we've been told.

To 13 October (020-7304 4000)