OPERA / Out of favour: Stephen Walsh on Cardiff's new production of Donizetti's La Favorita

FOR THE third time in four operas in their current season, Welsh National Opera are regaling their audience in Italian, which may seem doubly curious in the case of Donizetti's La Favorita, since the original language of this typically Parisian salad of sex, piety and politics in the gardens of the Alcazar was French. Friday's opening brought dark mutterings in the press-box about a conspiracy between the management and Cardiff's enormous population of ice- cream and pasta salesmen. But what may concern the less suspicious-minded is the thought that, now WNO have that miracle of modern science a surtitle screen, they may never give an opera in English again. If, as one might also fear from the current season, they never again stage an opera written since 1900, we shall know for certain that the pot noodle has finally triumphed over the Swansea loaf; and that would be a shame.

La Favorita itself has not been seen in the UK since 1960. It's good to make the first-hand acquaintance of a work so rich in delicate, straightforward melody and deft orchestration. But it can't be said that Rennie Wright's wooden production offers much support to those who continue to argue Donizetti's status as a serious dramatist. Limply paced and (with a couple of exceptions) colourlessly acted, it throws far too much weight on to the sets and costumes of, respectively, John Gunter and Terry Frances Parr, with their spectacular but overworked staircase rake and stunning use of gauze to create pools of colour at all levels of the vertical plane (lighting by Mark Henderson).

But in any case the painful fact remains that practically everything in Donizetti boils down to one thing: the voice. And since, presumably, one of the strongest arguments for playing La Favorita in Italian is the problem of vocal casting in French, one expects the best on this count. One is, alas, disappointed. Bonaventura Bottone, normally so dependable a tenor, smothers the unfortunate Fernando (monk, lover, military hero and monk, in that order) under a heavy layer of shrill tone, while Bernadette Cullen, as La Favorita (that is, the royal mistress) herself, delivers this rewarding mezzo part patchily - with warm, beautiful tone but variable focus.

About the acting of these two, the less said the better. Geoffrey Moses brings greater intensity to the more complex (if, at bottom, incoherent) role of King Alfonso, and there is an excellent, vigorous Don Gasparo from Neville Ackerman. But the best singing by far comes from Rebecca Evans, back to full fitness as the Favorita's confidante - she is also the sprightliest, most compulsively watchable figure on what is, in the main, a fairly gloomy horizon.

In the pit, even Carlo Rizzi fails to generate his usual electricity. Some nice playing is interspersed with minor orchestral accidents, while the chorus and ballet shunt around like Wagner's 'scenery that has learnt to march and sing'. Subtly authentic or just dull?

'La Favorita' on tour: Bristol Hippodrome 11 Mar, 10 June (0272 299444); Southampton Mayflower 25 Mar, 26 June (0703 229771); Oxford Apollo 1 Apr, 8 July (0865 244544); Birmingham Hippodrome 16 Apr, 1 July (021-622 7486); London Royal Opera House 21, 24 Apr (071-240 1066); Cardiff New Theatre 26 May, 3 June (0222 394844)

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