Given the lack of notice that the major London companies have given to the 50th anniversary of Bohuslav Martinu’s death, Garsington Opera is to be applauded for mounting the UK premiere of his late comedy Mirandolina. It’s unfortunate, then, that the work gets so perfunctory a performance as it does in Martin Duncan’s colourful but empty production.

When Carlo Goldoni wrote La locandiera in 1753, he was well on the way to the naturalism which, by the end of his career, was to develop into almost Chekovian realism. He had dispensed with the stock commedia dell’Arte types of his early comedies and was creating fresh original characters based on the everyday life he saw around him.

As such, his middle-late period plays work best when played with absolute truth and the same is true of Martinu’s faithful adaptation, written at the tail-end of his too short life. Mirandolina, the simple tale of a brusque woman-hater converted by a feisty and attractive lady innkeeper, can only rise above the utterly superficial if the subtle psychological shifts are observed.

What director Duncan and designer Francis O’Connor gives us at Garsington is a grotesque bunch of marionettes on a toytown set, any laughs drawn from camp posturing. Columbian soprano Juanita Lascarro has a certain dark-hued charm as Mirandolina but there’s no real spark and it’s hard to understand why men would be drawn to this honey-pot.

As for the men, it’s hardly credible that they’d be interested in any woman, however alluring. The key to the Cavaliere di Ripafratta, and his sudden conversion from misogynist to slobbering puppy, is a deeply-repressed romanticism and we have to believe in the sexual attraction that Mirandolina unleashes. Geoffrey Dolton’s fey Ripafratta exploits a slight resemblance (at least at a distance) to Kenneth Williams to give a high camp caricature drawn from a Carry On historical romp.

The two noblemen, toothlessly running after the innkeeper (Mark Wilde and Andrew Slater), are characterisations of the most obvious kind; give a man a mince and a few ruffles and it suffices to signal that he resides in the 18th Century. Mary Hegarty and Jean Rigby (luxury casting), as the two actresses who ape their betters, are painted dolls in hideous ugly sister costumes.

All of this would matter less if the show were musically stronger. The singing is merely adequate and the band, under Martin André, takes a long while to warm up. It’s unfortunate then that the (relatively) well-known Salterello that opens the third act is moved to the very beginning of the show as an overture, in itself not a bad idea but somewhat wasted when the ears are not yet attuned to the anaemic sound. Even when the heat is on, Martinu’s witty and inventive score seems thin-toned. The lively third act interlude, building to typically Martinuesque syncopated brilliance, comes off better.

Having vented frustration at the shortcomings of the production, I have to say Mirandolina makes for a light (very light) Summer evening of appropriate length which will be enjoyed by many. Both Goldoni’s play and Martinu’s opera could be so much more, though, and the danger is it will be dismissed as fluff and instantly forgotten. Get the Wexford recording of this delightful work for a much more satisfying experience.

– Simon Thomas