OPERA / Unjust desserts: Jan Smaczny discovers that a little Pimlico Opera goes a very long way

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The Independent Culture
NO ONE should underestimate the value of small travelling opera companies. Outside the metropolis, opera is, for many, at best a sporadic experience. The yearly or twice yearly visits of the big national companies have acquired almost the status of religious festivals. In between, the smaller touring companies keep the operatic lights ablaze.

More than this, the small- scale treatment of opera can have a liveliness of invention and adaptability that outruns the bigger companies. Given the smaller companies' additional role as proving grounds for young singers, a new production from such a source can become a major event. Pimlico Opera has had a well-earned share of success in bringing opera to the broadest range of audiences, not least the inmates of Wormwood Scrubs.

Little of the panache and daring of previous ventures is apparent in this double bill: Rossini's Il Signor Bruschino and Daryl Runswick's new work, Zuppa Inglese (described as 'A Trifle in One Act'). Bruschino began as pretty pallid stuff, with unfocused singing and underprojected humour. Martin Merry gave his band its head far too often - tuttis swamped the singers and Rossini's delicious crescendos counted for almost nothing. Help was at hand - Nicole Tibbels' blast of coloratura half-way through cheered nearly everyone up. Gavin Carr still seemed a touch gentle vocally as Bruschino Padre, and the upper levels of Robin Green's range (as Florville) remained worrying, but nearly everything else came together with a conviction that had been missing for much of the evening.

The Oxford Playhouse is not exactly inimical to opera, but it is not helpful either. Burgeoning confidence among the singers and a more favourable balance between band and voices may well turn this Bruschino into a success. Zuppa Inglese will take a great deal more effort before the odd, scattered titter will turn into broad approval.

Elizabeth David once described Italian trifle as an 'exuberant joke'. Notwithstanding the laboured culinary parallels in the programme book, this operatic version was neither lively nor funny. The story aims to draw together Rossini's historical encounters with Beethoven and Wagner, and Wagner's own wish-fulfilment of a meeting with Beethoven; and the musical fabric relies heavily on quotation from all three. Doubtless this is very amusing for the composer and librettist of the new work, but the effect on an audience is first distracting and, finally, tedious.

Drama needs far more than a few in-jokes to work effectively on stage, and true humour in opera is something that has eluded the greatest composers. Quotation can be funny, but it usually works best when it surprises the listener; given the volley and variety of extracts here, the result was merely indigestible. The resulting 'confection' proved about as enticing as a dinner party in which the pudding - and a heavy one at that - is served first.

Final performances: Royal Geographic Society, London, 10-11 June