The Barber of Seville, Savoy Opera, London

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The Independent Culture

The last time anybody ran fully commercial opera in the Savoy, the theatre specialised in Gilbert and Sullivan. With the D'Oyly Carte Company gone, the name "Savoy Opera" is up for grabs. So are the risks.

The last time anybody ran fully commercial opera in the Savoy, the theatre specialised in Gilbert and Sullivan. With the D'Oyly Carte Company gone, the name "Savoy Opera" is up for grabs. So are the risks.

The combined fortunes of Stephen Waley-Cohen and Raymond Gubbay may have to be prepared for a battering, but it's one that these wise old heads must have reckoned they could take. To judge by the cramped and crammed foyers on the official first night, they will need to make a quick profit so that they can buy their audiences some breathing space.

Although the delicious auditorium felt once again like a natural home for lyric theatre, the risks continue on stage. Rossini's Barber of Seville is dragged out of pre-1789 Europe and dropped into what looks and feels like the period just after Franco in Spain; still with decadent aristocrats, locked-up daughters and corrupt police, but free enough for the subversive hand of a Figaro to have scope for upset. That's about as serious as the show gets. Aletta Collins' direction takes a strictly comic line, devising simple but effective touches of ingenuity to amplify character and situation.

Figaro, the barber, makes his entrance while concluding a little business as a gigolo. At this point, we are still in the street, but Gideon Davey's set undergoes a smart reversal to become a kitchen in which masters and servants can bump into one another with at least some plausibility. It also provides a plentiful supply of props for extracting jokes. Pick of these is the sleeping cat that is obviously stuffed: it gives the entire house a fit of giggles first time around, though the temptation to over-use it isn't resisted.

Collins shows herself deft at drawing the humour out of her cast. She is helped by the veterans among them. Geoffrey Dolton's Bartolo delivers a style of loopy, affronted, dignity worthy of Basil Fawlty, and Phyllis Cannan makes a wonderfully-rounded cameo out of the maid Berta, stealing the scene long before she sings.

All this might easily be so much sitcom, and a straw poll in the interval sifted some scornful dissent from a generally positive reaction. What gave the staging its distinction, however, was the energy and musical strength with which it presented the main roles. Owen Gilhooly makes Figaro a power-house of confident virility. Darren Abrahams fuses the effete roguishness of Count Almaviva with a streak of tenderness, thanks to a sparkling, soft, high register to amplify the agility essential in a Rossini tenor. As Rosina, Sally Wilson sounds bright, clever, and a little hard - just right for the character who, at this stage in her life, definitely knows how to manipulate the man she wants.

But "sparkling" wasn't always the word for the orchestra, which needed a while to get into its stride, though Brad Cohen's conducting gave the music an increasing fizz that made the ensembles go with some style.

The production needed no apology for its commercial origins. You always hear mutterings about compromise when art is meant to make money. But compromise is what has always driven opera. The whole idea is that by conceding their autonomy, the arts of music and drama might just come up with something special. So far, Savoy Opera has done the trick.

To 19 June (0870 166 7372)

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