OPERA / See them dance the polka: Edward Seckerson on David Pountney's new production of Smetana's The Two Widows at English National Opera

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You can be sure it's Smetana because the orchestra is hot-foot into its first polka before you can say 'Bartered Bride'. The Two Widows - back in London after 30 long years - is a very different proposition, in fact. Act 1 is sweet, jolly, frolicsome operetta, so flimsy it might just blow away in a breath of that bracing country air. Act 2 finds a heart of darkness in this everyday tale of widowhood. Shadows of morality steal in to lend substance to the souffle. Though not for long. Sooner or later, everyone's going to dance the polka.

Alas, the souffle fails to rise in David Pountney's new production for English National Opera, and where Smetana's heart is full, the conductor Adam Fischer is heavy-handed and oddly charmless. So whatever happened to the intimate comedy of manners? The Coliseum swallowed it whole, it would seem. And yet, designer Mark Thompson has created a warm and inviting environment, jolly front-cloth of bright blue sky and yellow cornfields rising to reveal jolly set of bright blue sky and yellow cornfields. It's the kind of Bohemia you only ever find in picture books and operettas, where the sun always shines and well-scrubbed peasants are forever bringing in the sheaves. Perfick. I've never seen David Pountney exercise such restraint in a production of anything. He really does step aside here and let Smetana and his singers do the business.

Trouble is, some of the business is pretty silly and it's going take more than a handful of racy rhyming couplets (new translation by Pountney and Leonard Hancock) and one or two half-hearted sight gags to raise titters in Act 1. It's coming to something when the gamekeeper's dog ends up stealing the scene, especially when all he really wants to do is leave the stage. Never work with animals. No, Pountney's best moments are Smetana's best moments, and at the close of the glorious duet between Aneska and Ladislav in Act 2, he plants a silence that speaks volumes. Now there's a moment of intimacy that does fill the house. On the whole, the voices do too. It's a good sing for all.

The two widows are plainly a double-act born of Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Feisty Marie McLaughlin has fun with the lady of the manor, Karolina (looking good for her money) - all jodhpurs and gin and heavy nights with the local labourers. No sooner has she lit up her first cigarette of the day than she's tossing off her philosophy of life in a brilliant sequence of trills and roulades. McLaughlin dropped a few stitches above the stave, but the personality won through.

Anne-Marie Owens's Aneska - her dress as extravagant as her mourning - duly showed off that terrifically ample sound of hers, though as yet there were subtleties to find and turns of phrase to conquer. David Rendall (Ladislav) displayed plenty of voice, too, and there was buffo bluster from a somewhat overtaxed and plainly off-colour Donald Adams. But Smetana needs far more loving care than Adam Fischer exhibited (ensemble, too, was precarious to say the least). Yes, even the polkas.

In rep at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane WC2 (071-836 3161) to 20 Jan

(Photograph omitted)

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