OPERA REVIEW: The Cunning Peasant Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London

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With Rusalka a firm favourite at ENO, most opera-goers are at least aware of Dvorak's operatic credentials; why not give another of his 11 operas a chance? The Guildhall's excellent production of The Cunning Peasant (Dvorak's sixth opera) can only do his reputation as an opera- composer good. A flimsy libretto, which, incidentally, didn't stop the opera acquiring a popularity in its day surpassed only by The Bartered Bride, might have been a bar, but for all the failings of the drama, there was little sign that a modern audience failed to appreciate the wit of Dvorak's characterisation or the melodic generosity of his musical setting. Clive Timms's translation of the offending libretto, the odd creaky moment aside, managed to project the naive jollity of the comedy while avoiding the worst banalities of the original - a pallid shadow of The Marriage of Figaro, complete with aristocratic hanky-panky, set in the Bohemian countryside.

It's a pity that even judicious tinkering couldn't give the young couple, Jenik and Betuska, more time alone; when they are able to talk about love in the second act, Dvorak supplies a linked pair of duets that are pure lyrical delight. In fact, throughout the opera, Dvorak's response to situation and character is entirely convincing; the melody is abundant and infectious, and some carefully placed reminiscences weld these disparate elements into a credible whole. All the musical ingredients are there for a good evening out, as a delighted audience clearly recognised. A more carefully organised libretto, which, incidentally, Dvorak got in his next comedy, The Jacobin, might have produced a masterpiece.

Cleverly circumnavigating the failings of the text, the Guildhall's reading of the opera was an almost complete success. The company's strong sense of a communal endeavour in which everyone believed gave enormous impetus to ensemble scenes. Robert Chevara's apposite production and Es Devlin's starkly effective sets kept the nasty undertow of droit de seigneur and parental abuse in sight, while neither prevented the humour from flowing generously in the comic scenes.

Even without such commendably perceptive direction, the musical performance would have carried the evening. So often, student choruses, especially when contributing to a comic opera, can seem under-involved or simply embarrassingly joky. The Guildhall's performers flung themselves into the action with abandon tempered by a thorough understanding of the drama. All the solo roles were taken with distinction: David Quah's Jean, Anne Bourne's Berta and Martin Fischer's Vaclav were splendid comic cameos, while Liubov Chuchrova and Christoph Wittmann were both delightful and moving as the young lovers. The "grown-up" parts, the Princess (Magdalena Branland), Veruna (Charlotte de Groot) and the "cunning peasant" Martin (Panito Iconomou), wisely looked beyond the simple comedy in their roles and Konrad Jarnot's fine-toned Prince managed to be both stately and venal.

Clive Timms's handling of the score was alert and idiomatic. If his players seemed to be enjoying themselves a little too much to provide effective balance at all times, the failing was more one of enthusiasm for the richness of the orchestration than wilful upstaging; far more important was their pervasive use of ensemble. Rising above the flaws in the work, this performance proved The Cunning Peasant to be a viable and exciting whole; an inestimable service not just for Dvorak's operatic fortunes, but for an audience looking to expand their enjoyment of 19th- century opera. There are two more performances. Don't miss it!

Further perfs 7pm, tomorrow and Fri (0171-638 8891)

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