OPERA / A marriage made in heaven: The British premiere of Massenet's Cherubin after 89 years is also Nicholas Payne's first major test at the Royal Opera House. Both debuts are applauded by Edward Seckerson

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The Independent Culture
So what did happen to Cherubino after Figaro's wedding? For that matter, how did the happy couple make out? Was it to be one long honeymoon or acrimony and alimony? And were things ever going to be quite the same again in the Almaviva household? Pierre-Augustin Baron de Beaumarchais had started something he could never hope to finish. His comedy La folle journee, ou Le mariage de Figaro was a socio-political sensation even before winning entry into the realms of immortality, courtesy of Mozart. And success breeds sequels - that much has never changed.

Actually Beaumarchais did produce a sequel, almost a decade after the original. He called it La mere coupable, ou L'autre Tartuffe, and in it he scurrilously pursued a tale of forbidden love between the Almavivas' illegitimate children. Darius Milhaud made an opera of it in 1966. Then there was Odon von Horvath's play Figaro last sich scheiden (Figaro Gets a Divorce). Not nearly as much fun. German, you see. Too much lard, not enough butter in the sauce. That one ends in reconciliation.

But what did happen to Cherubino? Well, according to one Francis de Croisset he grew up fast. From raw recruit to commissioned officer virtually overnight, still only sweet seventeen and growing randier by the minute. The army had done nothing to dampen his ardour. On the contrary: he was still writing poems to the Countess - and other ladies of quality - still enraging jealous husbands. And that's really all there is to Croisset's sentimental little comedy Le Cherubin - the most novel and uncomplicated of all the Figaro sequels. You can see why it might have appealed to the 60-year-old Jules Massenet. A golden opportunity to re-enter the gallant world of the rococo, where nostalgic airs drifted in on every breeze and heartache was a sickness to be savoured. Cherubin, his 17th opera, was written quickly in a succession of hot flushes. At least, that's how it sounds.

The first performance, on St Valentine's Day 1905, enjoyed a succes fou. And so, it would seem, did the first performance at the Royal Opera House on St Valentine's Day 1994. That should come as no surprise. Here, after all, is a wonderful opportunity for collective indulgence - a style- piece, a souffle, 18th-century glamour in the 19th-century manner. A little imagination will go a long way. A little further if you are Tim Albery and Antony McDonald, the director and designer of this British premiere production. Together, they have devised an elaborate courtly entertainment for the 1990s, and have us peeping into the past from the present.

The quirky sets are like toys, playthings, out of scale, out of time. From a wall of gaudy blooms, huge shutters open on to a world of romantic folly. Cherubino makes his entrance that way, standing akimbo against a starry night sky as his musical motto pours forth.

His coming-of-age party is a tableau of glittering rococo figures in mile-high wigs. It's the kind of show where the outsize globe-lamp on a garden wall might serve as the moon, where the ornate ironwork on a hotel balcony is suddenly glowing neon, wittily signalling a love scene. It's one big theatrical caprice. And Albery let's us in on the act before the curtain has even risen. A couple of servants run across the stage, catch sight of us, and snigger. And as if to heighten the stylisation, the recitatives are all translated, in spoken asides, by no less than Susanna and Figaro - now, of course, Cherubino's servants.

So why the delay in bringing us this tasty confection? Massenet wrote many better pieces but none sweeter. Never mind the lack of substance, subtext and character development. Mozart tells us more about Cherubino's adolescence in the three or four minutes of 'Non so piu' from Figaro than we learn in the whole of Massenet's score. But the lyric and buffo elements are well mixed, the tunes scrumptious, and the pastiche charming. The Act 2 love duet, shimmering with sounds of the night, sultry cor anglais to the fore, is the work of a real composer. Plus, of course, it's all so grateful to sing.

And if this level of imagination in casting is the shape of things to come under Nicholas Payne's directorship, then we can anticipate a new lease of life for the Royal Opera. The three ladies dominating the evening were all special voices to be heard sooner rather than later. In the title role, the American Susan Graham is a hot new talent with a gorgeously creamy, evenly produced sound. Her feeling for the French style, the phrases not so much sung as shrugged off, was exemplary. As Nina, the one constant figure in Cherubino's philandering life, Angela Gheorghiu has an engaging flutter in the voice. In her sensitivity, her ability to take phrases from the air and hold them, she is the genuine article. Not everything quite came off, but when it did - as in her final 'Adieu' to Cherubino - it was spellbinding. So too, Maria Bayo as the ballerina L'Ensoleillad, prime object of Cherubino's desire. Her music is all lust for life, dripping with seductive ornamentation. Bayo's singing was so captivating, I couldn't care less about her footwork. Pace problems, it seems, disappeared with the departure of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky: Mario Bernardi conducted here with self-evident affection.

So what happens to Cherubino after 'Cherubin'? Has he now sown his wild oats, suffered 'the sickness' and learnt to love? The ecstatic unison of his closing duet with Nina suggests he has. Not 'a retreat', he insists, more a 'reveille', an awakening to love. His mentor, the Philosopher (Robert Lloyd), knows better. And, of course, you'll pick up the quote from Don Giovanni in the orchestra.

In rep at the Royal Opera House, London WC2. Box office: 071-240 1911 /1066

(Photograph omitted)