Opera: DAPHNE Garsington Opera, Oxford

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The Independent Culture
If the sun comes out in summer, music, like food, can benefit greatly from the open air. If the acoustic is right, instrumental colours shine more brightly, rhythms gain added spring; even the elemental thrill of an evening breeze lifting the awning at a crucial moment can add to the experience. On Monday, nearly everything natural conspired to make Garsington Opera's new staging of Strauss's Daphne a success.

Their new version of Mozart's Impresario needed rather more heavenly intervention - its exploration of the ambition and monstrosity of singers needs more than a racy overture and three attractive numbers to fly these days. Meredith Oakes's update played cleverly with the work's historical background, but it would have been wiser to go beyond a bout of faded S & M - Salieri and Mozart, that is. The tension between profligate genius and earthbound talent no longer does either composer credit in our post- Amadeus era: Garsington should make amends soon with Salieri's Tarare. David Fielding's staging and set offered the odd visual joke amid a fair dose of nonsense, but brought the divas to hideous life - with Eileen Hulse a magnificent Madame Herz.

No such problems disturbed Daphne. Quite why the piece should be a rarity is a puzzle: Ariadne apart, Strauss never wrote a more delicately lyrical opera. The suspicion that the score itself might be a little too beautiful for its own good was fuelled by an ardent and luminous reading by Elgar Howarth, marred only by some over-enthusiastic brass. Musical insight was matched by Fielding's clever direction and design, which managed both to mock the comic triviality of godly wrath and sustain, with passionate conviction, the fragile story line. An appealing group of Shepherds and Maids made for attractive ensembles, even if the Bacchic frenzy of the former proved a touch too rustic even for Garsington.

Among the cast, Jonathan May (Peneios) and Rebecca de Pont Davies (Gaea) were commanding presences. If Christopher Gillett (Leukippos) lacked their resonance, he made an affecting lover and a wicked drag act; while Jeffrey Lawton, despite being done up like Robbie Coltrane as a peroxide- blonde, was moving as the tortured Apollo, credible in voice and gesture.

Enough already to encourage those with an understandable dislike of evening dress to swallow scruples and head for Garsington. The clincher is Juanita Lascarro in the title role. Vocally, she combines agility and weighty substance like a young Jessye Norman; as a stage presence, she is irresistible, imbuing the hoydenish Daphne with a depth beyond mere vocal beauty. In short, a performance that makes the under-estimation of the opera seem wholly absurd. Aided by sensitive orchestral playing and effective stage machinery, her metamorphosis into a laurel was, beyond expectation, as moving as anything in Strauss.

nIn rep to 7 July (Booking: 01865 361636)