Opera: Looking for the funny side

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The Independent Culture

FRANK MATCHAM'S turn-of-the-century Richmond Theatre has an exhortation carved above the stage: "To Wake the Soul by Tender Strokes of Art". In terms of contemporary arts management, such a statement comes under the heading of Aims and Objectives, and it makes an appropriate motto for English Touring Opera, which began its winter tour there last Wednesday. Here is a company dedicated to travelling the land with stagings of repertoire operas (two on every tour), sung in English, and with the chorus in one opera becoming the principals in the other. How many souls may be woken by such tender strokes of art? And does it matter if metropolitan audiences (or at least critics) have found many of ETO's recent shows falling between the stools of simplicity and simple-mindedness?

Perhaps not, but in any case, things look better with its production of Donizetti's comedy The Daughter of the Regiment, staged by Ian Spink in Yannis Thavoris's designs. Spink is best known as a choreographer. His company, Second Stride, wandered freely between dance, theatre and opera, creating its own forms according to need. Such interdisciplinary licence confuses grant-giving bureaucracies, and the Arts Council has withdrawn funding.

Spink's art has something darkly febrile about it, so perhaps he's not temperamentally suited to Donizetti's airy froth. And here's the disadvantage in singing in English: do an opera in the original language and it's easy to convince yourself it's funny, when singing it in English reveals that it's rather wan. The problem here is not Kit Hesketh-Harvey's witty translation, which not only rhymes "Ovid" with "beloved", but ensures that a line such as "head canteen girl, in charge of snails on toast" makes dramatic sense. No, the fact is that the opera isn't terribly funny, and Spink often seems to concede the point - scattering his singers around the stage but giving them little to do.

Yet there are moments when Spink's mise en scene finds something sharp: the opening of Act Two is a gem of comic observation and timing, thanks in no small part to a trio of capacious personalities. Anthony Marber's Sergeant Sulpice is a telling foil for Gaynor Keeble's plummy Marchioness, and together they offset the energy of Sarah Rhodes's Marie. Her singing voice is bright and flexible, with rapt pianissimos and weighty top notes that fill the theatre.

Under Andrew Greenwood, the reduced orchestra plays well, and if the first night of a tour is often tentative, this is a show that will gather momentum as it crosses the country. Next time, perhaps ETO may get Spink to stage one of Donizetti's tragedies; then the sparks might really fly.

On tour with Beethoven's `Fidelio' until 5 December