Probably the finest purveyors of contemporary opera in this country, certainly the most hip, Tête à Tête returned to the Bridewell Theatre this week with their latest compendium of new works, Six-Pack: a slickly produced and superbly performed thesis on how a fusty art-form can be made as sexy, sassy and design-conscious as an episode of Sex and the City. Tight performances, tight designs, and (mostly) tight material. Who could ask for anything more? Whether your journal of choice is Vogue or Prospect, I'd bet a year's subscription that this is one evening's entertainment you'll relish.
Actually, hang on a minute. I have a couple of caveats before we shake on that. Firstly, if you're a postman ("I listen coz 'e supports the Arsenaw!") or a gay man ("Your... fridge... is... dis... gus... ting!"), you may take exception to some of the libretti's less thoughtful characterisations. Secondly, for all the above-mentioned tightness, you have to be prepared for a deficit of anything but the kind of smart, surface wit that Sex and the City trades in. A disappointing blind date – composer Rachel Leach and librettist Jo Davies's Jack and Jill – that ends with a redemptive kiss from a waiter? Now where have I seen that before... Oh yes, Sex and the City. Or was it Ally McBeal? Or another of the now legion "Ho-hum, my heart is broken so I'll cheer myself up with a new handbag" post-emotional comedy-dramas? Who could ask for anything more? I could. Tête à Tête's visual acuity, dramatic momentum, and musical aptitude is still unbeatable, but where their 1999 portmanteau Shorts offered a balanced diet, Six-Pack is all canapés and cocktails. Farewell then to the political bite of Gary Carpenter's dada-ist Doggone, the desolation of Elfyn Jones's The Nightjar and the wild imagination of David Bruce's Kafka-meets-Capra insect fantasy Seven Tons of Dung. Hello to an evening of light satires, only two of which step out of the metropolitan milieu of modern manners.
Fittingly, it is the lightest of Six-Pack's comedies that show the most imaginative use of the genre: Leach and Davies's Jack and Jill – which tunes into Jill's increasingly desperate thoughts over Jack's madrigalian riff of "blah blah blah" – and John Webb and Barbara Diana's The Phone Call – which weaves ring-tones into its anxious, abrupt, minimalist patterns and percussive exploitation of the accordion. The more zeitgeisty pieces, Helen Grimes and Davey Moore's Doorstepping Susannah and Christina Jones and Julian Grant's Odd Numbers – which shouldn't, I think, have been programmed consecutively – lose their potential for poignancy under the weight of mockney caricature and derivative melismas (though Grant's vocal trios are as clever as anything in Trouble in Tahiti). The bittersweet remainder – David Bruce and Bill Bankes-Jones's Has It Happened Yet? and Richard Taylor and Lynne Williams's Waiting for Jack – show a fracture between vocal and instrumental style that undermines their carefully set-up sense of place.
If canapés are what you fancy, these morsels are beautifully executed. Director Bill Bankes-Jones again shows superior use of a small space, while Tim Meacock displays his imaginative and stylish designs. Balance problems aside – and an ensemble of accordion, clarinet, tuned percussion and double bass is a tricky one to balance – the performances are as near to faultless as you can get in live music-making. Soprano Natalie Raybould, counter-tenor Stephen Wallace, tenor Daniel Norman, and bass-baritone D'Arcy Bleiker each work hard for their money with super-quick changes of costume, character, age, and mood. The voices are all promising; Wallace's cool pillar of sound the most mature, and Raybould's the most flexible. Indeed Raybould is something of a catch: physically confident, an astute actress and full of charm. The ensemble work – vital to such concise writing – is impressive, held together by Stuart Stratford's incisive beat. Yes, Tête à Tête make a convincing argument that opera can be intelligent and accessible. Yes, you should go. Yes, it's the most stylish production since Boulevard Solitude. And yes, you can even take your drinks in. But no, it's not quite as satisfying as their last show.
Which brings me to Francesca Zambello's Don Giovanni, now with its second cast and conductor and utterly transformed. The downside is that Melanie Diener is replaced by Ana Maria Martinez, who sings beautifully but portrays exactly the kind of crazed Elvira that Diener fought against in her interpretation. The upsides are Simon Keenlyside (quite disturbingly sexy as the murderous Don), Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (a lithe and immensely likeable Leporello), Natalie Christie (sweet of tone as Zerlina), John Mark Ainsley (a noble Don Ottavio). Above all, there's Sir Charles Mackerras, who brings supreme definition and colour to the score, and shapes the accompanied recitatives to devastating effect. Everything is different this time; at one and the same time more traditional, more cohesive and more compelling. A triumph.
'Six-Pack', Bridewell Theatre, London EC4 (020 7936 3456) to 9 March; 'Don Giovanni', ROH, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 5 MarchReuse content