Norma/Opera Holland Park, Holland Park Theatre, London<br/>Katya Kabanova/Welsh National Opera, New Theatre, Cardiff

The acid sound of pickled onions and peacocks
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The Independent Culture

For inclusivity, accessibility, bonhomie and sheer ebullience, Opera Holland Park takes some beating. Though the repertoire is geared towards 19th-century arcana, London's unpretentious alternative to the stately homes summer season has a kind of haphazard magic. Afficionados and virgins rub shoulders here; relishing the simulacrum of luxury without the attendant price tag. The pressure is off, the dress code relaxed, the conversation easy. Better still, you're unlikely to leave with that dyspeptic feeling of wanting a refund of your precious time. Because when it is good, it's very, very good. And when it is bad, it's so bad that it's still entertaining.

For inclusivity, accessibility, bonhomie and sheer ebullience, Opera Holland Park takes some beating. Though the repertoire is geared towards 19th-century arcana, London's unpretentious alternative to the stately homes summer season has a kind of haphazard magic. Afficionados and virgins rub shoulders here; relishing the simulacrum of luxury without the attendant price tag. The pressure is off, the dress code relaxed, the conversation easy. Better still, you're unlikely to leave with that dyspeptic feeling of wanting a refund of your precious time. Because when it is good, it's very, very good. And when it is bad, it's so bad that it's still entertaining.

As with Opera Holland Park's 2003 production of L'Arlesiana, which featured Rosalind Plowright, the big draw for Norma is another artist championed by the cognoscenti and in the autumn of her career. Alas, Norma is an unforgiving role and time has not been kind to Nelly Miricioiu. Every so often, in the peripheries of a phrase, the quality that led some to hail her as the successor to Callas can be heard: a grainy, gamey, vulnerable intensity that pushes at the limits of technique and taste. But where Callas's voice grew jolie-laide with age, Miricioiu's is simply laide: chip-shop vinegar to her predecessor's balsamico, often wildly out of tune, and with a mournful, sour tone that echoes the off-stage vocalises of the park's excitable resident peacocks. Of Miricioiu's opposite number, Don Bernardini (Pollione), suffice to say that they are remarkably well suited. A wholly unsympathetic character, bored of his wife and children, Pollione only escapes the usual bad-boy boos by dint of what is here an entirely logical passion for Diana Montague's Adalgisa. Alone among the cast, Montague decodifies the multiple trills and roulades of her role; translating Bellini's period-specific syntax into a timeless language of feeling with a tone that is warm, fresh, flexible and secure in a performance worthy of any major opera house.

Having secured the services of Montague and the City of London Sinfonia - sweet of tone, true of note and stylishly phrased under Brad Cohen - Opera Holland Park would do well to raise their production standards accordingly. Bellini's credulous druid love-triangle is admittedly difficult to pull off but wooden gestures, bran tub costumes, bus queue crowd scenes and scenery that looks like the spoils of a midnight raid on John Lewis's haberdashery department are inexcusably lazy in the wake of Opera North's similarly arcane double-bill season. (If Djamileh can be made to matter, so can Norma.) Mike Ashman's inadvertantly comic production is one of the poorest I've seen, but I daresay it has a greater claim to authenticity than many a more luxuriously appointed alternative. Ah well, there's nothing like a brisk waltz at a time of emotional crisis, is there? Despite the clunky staging and Miricioiu's guttering coloratura, I have to say I rather enjoyed Norma. But that's the Holland Park magic.

So there are two ways to enjoy tragic opera: with a tolerantly raised eyebrow or with a raised heartbeat and badly bitten fingernails. Katie Mitchell's ineffably sad, tightly focused 2001 production of Katya Kabanova for Welsh National Opera - now touring in Elaine Kidd's excellent revival - falls into the latter category; though less by dint of designer Vicki Mortimer's slightly self-conscious cropping and framing than because of the sincerity of this cast and the impeccable sensitivity of the orchestral playing under guest conductor Steven Sloane.

Unlike Jenufa, in which Janacek draws the supporting small-town characters in meticulous detail, the success of Katya Kabanova is almost wholly dependent on its lead. Katya's insensitive husband and hectoring mother-in-law scarcely register. Her lover might as well be a cipher. The suggestion is that her suicide is, and has always been, inevitable: the result of a desperate compulsion to escape from herself that is manifested first in her girlish religious transport, then in her adulterous affair with Boris Grigorievich, and finally in her leap into the waters of the Volga. Pious ecstasy and erotic oblivion continually collide, reaching their apotheosis in the brief moment where Katya (Cheryl Barker) and Boris (Tom Randle) tenderly dance their farewell beneath fluorescent lights that are transformed into votive electroliers.

Like many of Mitchell's productions - including her recent film of The Turn of the Screw for BBC2 - the colours here are grey and gold; the secretive, serious shades of early morning and twilight. But the human details around Barker's heart-breakingly generous central performance as Katya are beautifully coloured too, turning a tragic one woman show into an absorbing ensemble piece. The relationship between Kudryash (David Curry) and Varvara (Arlene Rolph) is exquisitely drawn, the character of Boris rounded out into that of an innocent whose feelings are as genuine - if not as complex - as those of his lover, while little touches such as Kabanicha's competitive coquetry and Tichon's odd vulnerability are deftly portrayed by Suzanne Murphy and Andrew Forbes-Lane. A magnificent revival of a very clever production.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Norma': Holland Park Theatre, London W8 (0845 230 9769), to 25 June; 'Katya Kabanova': Plymouth Theatre Royal (01752 267222), 17 June, then touring

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