Sir John In Love, Coliseum, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

This comedy of errors falls flat

Putting the "English" back into English National Opera is, in part, what the company should be doing, of course. And the first professional production of Vaughan Williams's Sir John in Love since 1958 might be considered a step in the right direction. Is the piece really worth reviving, though? And if so, doesn't flashing the words "includes the great British favourite 'Greensleeves'" across all the publicity smack just a little of desperation? Yes and no to both questions, I think.

First, the piece. Well, there's no question that it's easy on the ear. Familiar words from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor coast merrily along on an effusion of rubicund folk tunes and fragrant pastorales. When Sarah Fox's Anne Page enters in the very first scene, you sigh just a little at the feminine beauty of the love music that Vaughan Williams so tenderly rolls out for her and Fenton (the ardent Andrew Kennedy). Perhaps he'd been listening to Wagner's Die Meistersinger that day. There is just such a moment in the first minutes of that piece. Young love will find a way, it tells us. And it does, of course. But Wagner had his way of illuminating character from within. Vaughan Williams does not.

This is hardly the work of a man of the theatre. It's essentially underscoring with speech-song overlaid. It's Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony with voices. There's something oddly bloodless about the characterisation - or lack of it. Little or no differentiation is made between the gallery of English eccentrics pictured within. They come and they go, and so do the jolly folk songs. Sir John himself is fatally undercharacterised in the music (compare Verdi in Falstaff). There's no edge, no rudeness. It's a score so wholesome, so well-scrubbed, you just want to slap it.

One might say the same of Ian Judge's staging. John Gunter's skeletal Tudor house frames sit cosily against a cut-out of Windsor Castle perched comic-ally on a green hill. They twist and turn into various configurations. Characters pass through them like so much human traffic. The blocking is sometimes iffy, focus not always well maintained. Sir John's first entrance is almost incidental - and since when did he ever close a door behind him?

There's an air of desperation about the comedy. For long stretches of Part I, everybody's vying for laughs and getting none. I'm not saying that's entirely Judge's fault. The play (which he has directed) isn't exactly side-splitting; the opera barely raises a titter - and that comes when the "merry wives" (hot foot here from a shopping expedition to Harrods) compare Sir John's letters "in canon".

Part II perks up somewhat after some quite literally hit-and-miss business with cow-pats at Frogmore and the laundry basket scene goes with a swing. The wives - delicious Marie McLaughlin and dusky-voiced Jean Rigby - play the entire scene off cue-cards and when Alastair Miles's eye-popping Ford arrives like Basil Fawlty with his pants on fire, there is that delicious moment where he stops the removal of the basket in its tracks only to think better of it as a hiding place for the fat knight. So near and yet so far. The story of his life.

Quite the best thing about the evening - and the piece - was the sense once more of an abiding company spirit, a grand ENO reunion bringing together the past and present. Popping up alongside those mentioned above were old favourites like Sally Burgess - a brassy, red-haired Quickly - and Robert Tear, whose Dr Caius was a Clouseau-like model of political incorrectness. Yes, the ministry of silly accents was at full stretch. But back where he belongs at the centre of the ensemble was Andrew Shore fleshing out Vaughan Williams's slimmed-down Sir John with his own inimitable flair.

And so Herne's Oak materialised (rather magically) to the strains of "Greensleeves" and suddenly one felt almost guilty about feeling indifferent.

To 1 April (0870 145 0200)

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