Theatre Sarrasine Lyric, Hammersmith

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The Independent Culture
Rome, 1758. Jean Ernest Sarrasine, a young French sculptor, visits the opera and falls obsessively in love with the voice and beauty of the star diva, La Zambinella, whom he pursues. The power of theatrical illusion and the youth's cultural ignorance have, however, led him to make a fatal error. La Zambinella is, in fact, a castrato and the kept boy of a cardinal whose henchmen, at the climax, butcher the outraged hero.

Such are the bare bones of Balzac's powerful short story. Neil Bartlett and Nicolas Bloomfield, respectively the author / director and composer of this glorious, haunting and witty stage treatment of the piece, have surrounded this central narrative with a much more elaborate frame than you get in the original.

In a conceit that reminds one a little of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, it imagines La Zambinella having survived for two and a half centuries. The show focuses on a midnight assignation in a ruined Parisian theatre between this egregious creature, who appears in triplicate as his youthful, middle- aged and ancient selves, and Mme de Rochefide (excellent Sara Kestelman). As a young woman back in the 1950s, she had heard La Zambinella's last concert and since then, though she has engaged in casual affairs, the ideal represented by the perfection of that voice has held her in thrall. No other person could live up to it. The point is, can Zambinella?

As the story of Sarrasine is re-enacted for this demanding worshipper, with pastiches of the operas in which the eunuch-diva starred and with Kestelman conscripted into the title role, you realise that Mme de Rochefide is both a second Sarrasine, a hoodwinked victim of illusion, and a distorted image of Zambinella "herself", in that her life too has been neutered in the service of an ideal. The tricky power relations between artist and fan - which can mirror those of prostitution or of malign sorcery - are arrestingly teased out here in a play that resembles a string of glittering conceits reflected in a hall of mirrors.

This is a show that likes to strike an operatic pose and then ram a louche tongue in its cheek, lunging from bel canto to music hall, Maria Callas to Marie Lloyd in the swish of an ostrich feather fan and the flick of a pink light. The three performers who portray the diva handle these tonal shifts with a wonderfully defiant bravura: the androgynously stunning Francois Testory slithers around a range that encompasses falsetto and tenor; Beverley Klein is the feisty Piaf-ish midlifer; and Bette Bourne is in triumphant form as Zambinella at 260, showing you not just the mocking wrecked-drag-queen regality of this knowing old pro, but the fear and the inner desert.

The show is full of thought-provoking ideas, like the counterpointing of Klein as Bellini's Norma, knife raised over her sleeping children, with Bourne recollecting the brutal surgery that enabled him to play such parts. Never mind if this is a bit shaky as opera history, the picture it presents of reality sacrificed so as to concoct the double illusion of a man playing a fictively empowered woman is a potent one. Paste, as somebody says, looks better under theatre lights than genuine diamonds.

n To 12 October. Booking: 0181-741 2311