The Haunted Manor/Polish National Opera, Sadler's Wells, London<br/>The Barber of Seville/The Marriage of Figaro/Savoy Opera, Savoy Theatre, London

Kitschy visitors and other arrivistes
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Inadvertently hilarious yet strangely touching, Polish National Opera's 2001 production of Stanislaw Moniuszko's 1865 rumty-tum rom-com Straszny Dwór - or The Haunted Manor - made its UK premiere at Sadler's Wells this week: the first in a series of five performances celebrating the entry of Poland into the European Community. What do you mean you'd never heard of it? As Bank Bàn is to Hungary, Straszny Dwór is to Poland: the national opera. Energetic drinking songs? Oh yes. Melancholy nostalgia for ancient military and agricultural triumphs? Of course. Heroic arias for the two pairs of aristocratic lovers? You bet. But ghosts? Alas, no. The ghosts are merely the girls, whose test for prospective husbands involves scaring them witless.

Inadvertently hilarious yet strangely touching, Polish National Opera's 2001 production of Stanislaw Moniuszko's 1865 rumty-tum rom-com Straszny Dwór - or The Haunted Manor - made its UK premiere at Sadler's Wells this week: the first in a series of five performances celebrating the entry of Poland into the European Community. What do you mean you'd never heard of it? As Bank Bàn is to Hungary, Straszny Dwór is to Poland: the national opera. Energetic drinking songs? Oh yes. Melancholy nostalgia for ancient military and agricultural triumphs? Of course. Heroic arias for the two pairs of aristocratic lovers? You bet. But ghosts? Alas, no. The ghosts are merely the girls, whose test for prospective husbands involves scaring them witless.

With Santa's Grotto scenery, a plethora of plaits, hats and dancing peasants and a veritable petting zoo of creaking fibreglass animals, this was a production - if not an opera - that might have been conceived by Mel Brooks. PNO have clearly suffered from Poland's economic ups and downs. Their chorus has a notable age-gap between its Cold War luvvies and MTV youngsters whose voices - like those of Iwona Hossa's toothsome Hanna, Piotr Nowacki's arrestingly loud Zbigniew, and Romuald Tesarowicz's baleful Skoluba - have been trained to project across the vast expanse of Warsaw's Grand Theatre, to deleterious tonal effect. But their orchestra, under Jacek Kaspszyk, has terrific focus, with plenty of front to the note from the cellos and basses and some truly fine work from the clarinet and cor anglais soloists. Furthermore, their surtitler - "But do we go someone to stab? Or indeed their goods to grab?" - clearly had access to a handsome rhyming dictionary. "Owls in the coomb"? Well, I never. The Polish premiere of Ruddigore is doubtless imminent.

And so to Savoy Opera, which opened to a flurry of pre-emptive opinion pieces stating that Raymond Gubbay's latest enterprise would not be welcomed by "the critics" however good it might turn out to be. Naturally, this is true. Indeed, there is nothing I would like better than to see live opera become so impossibly expensive and abstruse that only millionaire financiers with PhDs in Chromaticism and Class Warfare can enjoy it, hence I regularly trash productions that I privately believe to be delightful. But I jest. You see Savoy Opera has raised so many questions that, like the orchestra in the overture to The Barber of Seville, I'm simply not sure where to start.

If the premise of Savoy Opera is that its productions are for "the people", the pernicious correlative of this is that shows such as Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk are not. Granted, for the price of two stalls seats for Lady Macbeth - or one for the current revival of Der Rosenkavalier - you could purchase three for The Marriage of Figaro or The Barber of Seville. But comparisons with the Royal Opera House or even English National Opera are futile here because the standard at the Savoy is so very much lower in every respect. Despite the outstanding efforts of Darren Jeffrey (Mozart's Figaro), Damien Thantrey (Mozart's Count) and Geoffrey Dolton (Rossini's Bartolo), neither show approaches the vocal, instrumental and theatrical dynamism of last year's Royal College of Music production of The Turn of the Screw, where the most expensive seats were only £15.

Of course, these companies are subsidised, where Savoy Opera - like, um, Glyndebourne - is not. To be fair to the less experienced members of the two casts, which in one case includes the director, both episodes of Beaumarchais have some charming moments. Closing Figaro with the matrimonial bed is a nice touch, and the running gag with the stuffed cat enlivens an otherwise amateurish Barber. In the Mozart, Tamsin Coombs (Susanna) shows promise; in the Rossini, Charbel Mattar (Basilio). But the out-sourced Royal Philharmonic Opera Orchestra have little of their mother-ship's plush, forceful vitality, the sets are shoddy, and the electronic keyboard continuo is an aural excrescence made worse by the pure acoustics of an intimate theatre.

Youthful charm goes a long way to compensate for lack of competence in a new company but Savoy Opera are pushing this aspect of their venture - along with the hyperbolic claims to accessibility and affordability - too hard, especially in the light of Gubbay's exceptional professionalism in arena productions. Had less attention been paid to publicity and more to engaging the right artists, Savoy Opera could be a significant and positive force in London. But pretty dresses, pretty girls, straight-to-video acting and perfect diction - not such a treat when "We're leaving!" is sung several times by a static chorus - isn't enough to nail the target market of West End theatre-goers or make the other companies work harder to shake off the universally damaging perception of opera as an elitist pursuit. Do I honestly believe that Sir Charles Mackerras is worth three Brad Cohens? Yes. Do I think that the tiny percentage of my income tax that goes towards supporting ENO, the RCM and Covent Garden is worthwhile? Yes. Do I think "the people" deserve better from a commercial company? Yes. But what do I know? I'm only a critic.

'The Barber of Seville'/ 'The Marriage of Figaro', Savoy Opera, London WC2 (0870 164 8787), to 19 June

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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