What's the big idea?

Mozart/Salieri Spitalfields Market Opera
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The Independent Culture
Imagine a wind of operatic change blowing through London. It blows eastwards, depositing seeds in fertile soil. A healthy new culture takes root, the balance of operatic power in the city shifts. Unlikely perhaps but next week Hackney Empire hosts stagings of Rigoletto and The Magic Flute and, for the past 10 days, Spitalfields Market Opera (SMO) has taken audiences inside its new custom-built opera house, constructed in next to no time in the old fruit market. With the building still a shell, the plan is no doubt to reassure backers that there is room for a new London opera house.

Eventually, the theatre will hold 500, with a pit for 40 players. Nor will it simply be a receiving venue. On Tuesday, SMO unveiled its first in-house production, a "Hey, let's do an opera!" double-bill. Mozart's singspiel Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) and Salieri's Prima la Musica, poi le Parole (First the Music, Then the Words) were jointly premiered at the Viennese court in 1786. Mozart's work at one end of the hall was followed by Salieri's at the other. Invited to decide which was best, the audience gave Salieri the thumbs-up.

Although history reversed the decision, both works are now rare. SMO took them by the scruff and gave them a good shaking, which did little harm. With the pit unbuilt, and no funds for a full orchestra, conductor Jonathan Tilbrook opted for an on-stage band of nine (string quintet, four winds), with himself providing harpsichord continuo for the Salieri. In what seemed a welcoming acoustic, the sound was direct and engaging, and Tilbrook's conducting unfussily pointed.

Salieri's piece, in Lionel Salter's witty translation, emerged as somewhat prescient. Composer and poet argue over their new work. Raiding his back catalogue for something appropriate, the composer asks testily, "Who cares about the meaning?" while the poet struggles for le mot juste: "Non mi, non ti, non-starter". Plus ca change?

Mozart provided barely 20 minutes of music for The Impresario, allowing translator Greg Lyons to elaborate a slightly protracted spoken comedy in which actors and singers vie for top pay. This gave a delicious cameo to Fenella Fielding who, despite needing help from the prompter, delighted everyone with her wild over-acting.

The arias, here sung untranslated, have enough bends and peaks to unseat all but the most accomplished singers: Mozart had available two of the most celebrated sopranos of his day. Still, Toni Nunn and Jane Streeton, the latter suffering a throat infection, were not shamed.

Philip Parr's stagings, designed by Robin Rawstorne, were compact and heavy on ham. The Mozart seemed more substantial, probably because it sounded like Mozart.

Give the building a century or two and it will begin to smell like an opera house. For now, as the board's chairman suggested in a preamble, it is more "an idea of an opera house". Ideas have a way of shaping reality and, if the repertoire eventually stretches to works more challenging than these sponsor-friendly trifles, an East End opera house may become rather more than a dream.

n Last performances 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow (booking: 0171 247 2558)