Opera LE CINESI BAC, Battersea, London

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The Independent Culture
Opera in London in the summer months is something of a non-event. Opera-goers head for the hills of Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, Salzburg, Santa Fe. But what is left is often unusual and stimulating: Almeida Opera and now BAC Opera. Where the Almeida has "establishment" backing, BAC is a more modest affair, aiming to "draw the richest young operatic talent back to London, giving audiences the chance to see the stars of tomorrow in a refreshingly intimate theatrical environment." Well, the environment at BAC is certainly intimate - a box seating about 60 - but refreshing? Musically, perhaps, but this week, with closed doors and no air-conditioning, audience, performers and instruments came close to meltdown.

Le Cinesi was announced as a UK premiere, but by Tuesday's first night, it had been down-graded to "rarely performed". Gluck wrote this one-acter in 1754, when it apparently marked the climax of celebrations mounted by the owner of a large Viennese property to clinch a sale. This is pre- reform Gluck - a setting of a stock libretto by the doyen of stock librettists, Metastasio.

BAC Opera, under the stage direction of Kate Hutchinson, presents the action with such a persuasive light touch that Le Cinesi seems to poke fun at its own "seriousness" with its use of stock characters (one nymph, one shepherd, one dramatic heroine, one comedienne) taken by the four- strong cast. The plot is stock too, involving operatic reform politics and a battle for the winning style: seria, pastorale or comique. In its 75 minutes, each of the three lady singers enacts a substantial scena to establish the pre-eminence of her aesthetic while distracting her colleagues from the tedium of life.

As Gluck believed, operas survive through their music, not their librettos, and hints of the sublime Gluck to come are certainly in evidence. Jacqueline Varsey sang her seria with suitably dramatic ardour and Jessica Walker (attired in a petal-showered dress) was a fetching nymph, even if signs of strain were evident at the top of her range. But the voice of the evening was Susan Bortolot, whose dark hues won musically, although her comique character was somewhat obscure. Derek Archer, dressed in lurid green lurex and bright red foppish bow, played the lovelorn shepherd, perhaps a castrato part originally, but here sung with almost lazy ease at a comfortable pitch.

BAC Opera opted for English in the recitatives, keeping Italian for the arias while revealing English "surtitles" in unlikely spots - on a red ribbon pulled from the shepherd's bosom, on petals, on a kidney-shaped pond. Simon Capet at the harpsichord gallantly kept singers and a (rather weak) string quartet together and wisely discouraged over-active embellishment. Thomas Hassmann's child's paper jungle with cut-out flowers and toadstools charmed.

n To 27 Aug. Booking: 0171-223 2223