OPERA / Tricks of the trade: Nick Kimberley reviews Stephen Oliver's Mario and the Magician, the opening production in the Almeida Opera festival season

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The Independent Culture
STEPHEN OLIVER, who died in April, wrote operas compulsively - so much so that no one knows exactly how many he wrote. About 50 seems to be the best estimate. The theatre was his playground, and opera's amalgam of disparate elements released a dark, sardonic humour that thrived on the artifice of it all. His opera Mario and the Magician, premiered at Battignano in 1988 and now opening the first Almeida Opera festival in a new staging directed by Tim Hopkins and designed by Nigel Lowery, could almost be an embodiment of opera's druggy powers: an itinerant conjuror descends on an Italian resort basking in its own complacency and self- righteousness. As he draws townsfolk and tourists into his routines, he strips away their layers of protective deceit, exposing black hearts and guilty desires. Just like going to the opera. Set the piece in Mussolini's Italy and the magician's charisma acquires an even more sinister dimension.

Oliver was too much a man of the opera house to allow the metaphorical to obliterate the theatrical, and Mario is first and foremost a splendid drama (his own text is based on a story by Thomas Mann). While the magician runs through his prestidigitations, the audience - both on stage and in the auditorium - can't take its eyes off him. Richard Jackson's characterisation is suitably Mephistophelian as he prowls the stage in top hat, cloak and cadaverous make-up. The tough baritone voice fills the Almeida's claustrophobic spaces, bouncing off every corner of a theatre which, in its threadbare eeriness, might have been designed for Oliver's imagination.

The cast assembled by English National Opera's Contemporary Opera Studio is fine, and Tim Hopkins ensures that no one simply stands and delivers. Annemarie Sand is particularly effective as the German widow whose petty sin against the town's moral code sets the drama in motion. But this really is the magician's show, and none of the other singers has anywhere near as much to do. Oliver's vocal lines are sympathetic to the voice, never straining for expressionistic effect. The compact Almeida Ensemble, dominated by wind and piano, copes well under Nicholas Kok with Oliver's rather unassertive orchestral writing, which alternates between Loony Toon jitteriness and reticent lyricism. Not for Oliver the virtuoso orchestra which takes over the drama.

The staging makes the most of the considerable restraints imposed by both the Almeida's idiosyncratic stage-space and the Contemporary Opera Studio's tight budget. The cast spends much of the time clustered tightly together, but the tilting ellipse of a stage accommodates the necessary bustling movement. Costumes range from the vaguely 1920s to the vaguely present, and from the prim and proper to the beach-bum casual. A black curtain creates the hint of a false proscenium, but the centre of attention is a white slope with its iris-like cavity from which the magician emerges to bewitch us all.

The economy of movement, set and costumes makes its own contribution to this very concentrated music-drama. If the rest of the Almeida Opera season is as successful, we may have the beginnings of a new opera repertoire.

Further performances tonight, 11 July, 14 July, 18 July. Festival continues with the premiere of Nigel Osborne and Howard Barker's 'Terrible Mouth' (10 July, with four more performances) and a concert programme. Box office: 071-359 4404

(Photograph omitted)

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