superb…

The Independent, 20 September 2007

Thank heavens for little opera companies: never having heard a note of Georg Benda, I was curious to know how his Romeo and Juliet would come across, with its famously happy ending. Benda (1722-1795) was a member of "the Bach family of Bohemia ", musicians at the courts of Frederick the Great. Mozart admired his operas so much that he carried the scores about with him. Romeo and Juliet is an Italian-style "opera seria" cast in the German "singspiel" mode; and consisting of spoken text interspersed with arias and set pieces, it just scrapes by as an opera.

This production had a sweetly homespun feel from the start, with the announcement that the singer playing Friar Lorenzo was delayed in traffic and would have to be replaced for the first half – but since this half only involved speech, it wouldn't be too grievous a loss. The first three scenes, between Juliet and, respectively, her confidante, husband Romeo (in this version things move fast), and father Capulet, were appropriately stormy. The translation was stilted-contemporary – "Either my eyesight fails, or you look so pale", Juliet tells Romeo – but the acting was convincingly full-blooded.

But from the moment Juliet opened her mouth, we might have been listening to a blend of Handel and early Mozart. This may have been because the accompanying band for the final leg of this company's tour was the superb London Mozart Players, but it was principally the musical language: the textures and the interplay between voices and woodwind and strings were all instantly recognisable.

Who cared if the spoken bits were platitudinous, when the arias were so beautiful? Joana Seara as Juliet, and Ilona Domnich as Laura, dealt brilliantly with their coloratura arias; Mark Chaundy's Romeo acted stiffly but his voice was sweet, while Adrian Powter's Capulet was the epitome of mellifluously outraged paternity.

One only realised it wasn't Mozart as the drama was ratcheted up – Benda was a good composer, not a great one – but the denouement was delightful, with Juliet springing out of her tomb, Capulet slapping Romeo on the back, and hugs all round. Well, why not?

Michael Church