Opera Euryanthe Royal College of Music, London

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The Independent Culture
On my way to New Sussex Opera's staging of Weber's Euryanthe at the Royal College of Music, I was offered tickets by a tout. Unexpected, to say the least: Euryanthe is generally supposed to deserve its rarity, thanks to its unworkable plot, all cod medievalism and cardboard characters. Why would the touts be out for a pro-am performance? In the event, the tout's tickets turned out to be for M People just up the road at the Royal Albert Hall, and rows of empty seats in the Royal College's hardly huge Britten Theatre suggested that the opera's reputation had preceded it.

Yet Euryanthe is important, a major influence on Wagner, whose singing muse Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient was a significant early interpreter of the title role. Elements of the plot of Lohengrin almost exactly echo the earlier opera, and Weber's music is both forward-looking and beautiful. As for such "absurd" plot details as a huge serpent, they might better be seen as challenges to an imaginative director.

It would be good to report that George Roman's staging (sung in John Warrack's translation) redeemed the work. No one can accuse New Sussex Opera of lacking ambition. Since its first show, Fidelio, in 1979 the company has tackled Boris Godunov, Benvenuto Cellini, The Flying Dutchman and a host of other operas not usually on the agenda for such community- based set-ups, often with an imagination not always evident in much better endowed organisations.

Sadly this Euryanthe lacked conviction. The programme's cover hinted as much, depicting two of the characters as literal cardboard cut-outs. The staging itself seemed to want to apologise for the piece, presenting it as if it were being given for the amusement of some 19th-century nobleman and his court, so that, for example, as the orchestra hammered out the final triumphant bars, the scheming Eglantine, recently carried off as a corpse, could bound back on stage to hug the rest of the cast. If the opera really is "absurd" (a big if), the play-within-a-play device made it the more so.

Cast and chorus seemed to feel that the way to suggest something big happening was to stare intently into the auditorium, while the supernatural snake was no more than a small disturbance in the wings. Only Tertia Sefton- Green (Eglantine) threw herself into her part, cackling horribly but most melodiously. She dominated the stage, although Fiona Firth-Spiller had her moments, poignantly capturing Euryanthe's bitter desolation just before the serpent's non-arrival. Ivor Settlefield, deputising for Lionel Friend, the company's music director, ensured that the 40-piece orchestra gave good weight in this small theatre, although he seemed to have less time for his singers. I left wishing I'd taken up the tout's offer, and that is a shame: there's more to both Euryanthe and New Sussex Opera than this show suggested.

NICK KIMBERLEY

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