OPERA Life on the Moon (Il mondo della luna) RDS Theatre, Dublin

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Opera Theatre Company's trump card is an unerring understanding of how to handle its audience. Anyone who happened to beam down by chance into the middle of their Life on the Moon - a wickedly thorough overhaul of Haydn's Il mondo della luna - would have known exactly when to laugh; preposterous costumes, vaudeville timing and a G&S approach to satire left nobody with a chance to miss a single one of the ample gags on offer. Given the immediacy of its comic impact in this production, it seems strange that the work did not make much of a mark in its day (it was premiered at Eszterhas in August 1777, but was not seen again until 1949); the melody almost always hits the mark and the coloratura - often Haydn's strong suit - fleshes out the humour with alarming directness.

James Conway's re-working of Goldoni's libretto does a certain violence to the outline of the original, not least in reducing three acts to two, but it produces a directional piece of musical comedy with barely a dull moment. Adding an edge of mild S&M to the process of duping a silly old man (who thinks he has been transported to the moon) into giving away his daughter and maid to importunate suitors plays a pretty minor part in the success of this rethink. The real trick is Conway's treatment of secco recitative: normally a tedious business filling up the space between the arias, in this version it sparkles with lubricious allusion and easily assimilated humour.

With so much rampant wit in the text, Denis Looby's sets and Hilary Westlake's production wisely avoided weighing down the outline with too many gimmicks; for all the funny walks and cute costumes in the lunar scenes, the real humour was in the delivery of the words. Harry Nicoll's portrayal of Ecclitico, the fake astronomer who sets the whole farrago rolling, was a model of comic timing. The chance for James Nelson to shine as his servant Cecco, abetted by Clarice (Majella Cullagh) and Lisetta (Colette McGahon) as the rapacious daughter and maid, came in the comic exchanges of the second part, and all concerned seized their opportunities with both hands. Undoubtedly, the excellent acoustics of Dublin's RDS concert hall did much to aid communication, but each one of the singers deserves credit for putting the words centre stage.

While everyone threw themselves into making the comedy fly, musical values were not quite as well served. Andrew Synnott's continuo playing was neatly pointed, but the reduced orchestra of string quintet and single wind instruments seemed initially much less at ease with the demands of the score. Perhaps it was mid-tour blues, since the fairly raw tuning and rocky ensemble improved greatly after the interval, crystallising around some fine horn and bassoon playing. The singers, too, had their awkward moments vocally for all the virtuosity of their acting. Matching theatrical impact with the highest musical standards is a tall order, particularly for a group that tours as generously as Opera Theatre Company. But, despite the enormous service they have rendered in reminding us that late 18th-century opera is not a Mozartian monopoly, their cause can only be strengthened by letting the music shine as brightly as the comedy.

Further performances: Galway Town Hall Theatre, tonight; Dundalk Town Hall, Thurs; Tralee Siamsa Tre, Sat; then Limerick Belltable Arts Centre, 4 March; Kilkenny Watergate Theatre, 6 March; Cork Everyman Palace, 8 March

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