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­Plastic not so fantastic

An opera about cosmetic surgery is witty, but lacks genuine feeling

<strong>Skin Deep</strong>

Naming your operetta after an expression meaning superficial or trivial makes you a hostage to fortune. David Sawer and Armando Iannucci's three-acter, directed by Richard Jones, is set in a plastic surgery clinic and although it threatens at times to slice quite deeply into the corrupt values surrounding the vanity business, in the end it seems to have inflicted only surface nicks.

Iannucci's high profile as a television comedian has tended to place him equal with, if not above, the composer. The original commission, however, was Sawer's and his strongly rhythmic score gives a sense of unstoppable events. A troupe of shapely dancers emphasise this in impressive weightless movement. The orchestra might have mimicked this lightness more - the ostinati were too often hammerings rather than dance steps.

The plot concerns a certain Dr Needlemeier, who runs an "aesthetic surgery" in the Alps. Wife, lover, daughter, and daughter's boyfriend are among the many grateful patients. Needlemeier's version of a facelift is to lift one completely off and he swaps his wife's for his lover's, gruesomely realising what for others may only be fantasy. The sinister element in the beauty trade is hinted at in Jones's production with the doctor's Gothic script slogan above the stage like a Nazi motto: "Putting right what nature got wrong".

Self-conscious references abound. The crazy doctor's ultimate aim is to create a Donizetti-ish elixir of life using celebrity body parts. The concoction is made in a huge vat into which a chorus soprano throws herself like Tosca. The face-swap requires wife and lover to exchange costumes and personalities as in a Shakespeare identity twist.

The final ingredient of the elixir is a testicle from Luke Pollock, the world's most charismatic actor. Bass Mark Stone in this role is the pick of the singers. His voice is like hot tar, glistening, dark and smooth. He sneers at his public and they adore him. His anger at the theft of his testicle is the most emotional scene in the drama, striped underpants notwithstanding. The search for his goolie makes him literally an actor looking for a part, as Iannucci quips. By contrast baritone Geoffrey Dolton as the doctor does not quite command the stage as he might. His voice is expressive but pallid. He lacks evil intent, tending to the comic rather than dastardly. His chemical solo has the flavour of a Sullivan patter song.

The lover is sung flirtatiously by mezzo Heather Shipp, the wife with stately serenity by soprano Janis Kelly. They handle the personality switch well, despite their different ranges. A stillness surrounded Kelly's "They all come to me", a moment of pure lyricism.

The daughter, sung by soprano Amy Freston, wants her boyfriend, tenor Andrew Tortise, to have a penis enlargement. Why is the daughter involved? Aren't men capable of vanity and insecurity by themselves? The laughs become sniggers. Sawer illustrates the new enlarged member with a flexatone, a percussion instrument that goes boing. Then, in a swerve towards blasphemy, the boyfriend sings, "Like Christ fresh arisen", of his new perfect self. Iannucci only touches on these murkier areas though Sawer's music is quite capable of depicting horror - witness the stabbing, manic strings in the three surgery scenes. (Two would have sufficed. Some excision required.)

The chorus were mostly fun and managed to carry off their nude scene - don't rush, they're all wearing body stockings - with aplomb and in the spirit of warm, warts-and-all love with which the show ends, like a 1960s nude revue. However, an operetta works best when pathos and genuine feeling are ingredients; here we had only the vacuous behaviour of the shallow rich.

Opera has had a long association with the scalpel. In the 18th century, Italian audiences called out "Viva il coltello!" - long live the knife - when they were impressed by the singing of a castrato. Society loved the sound so much that it was prepared to mutilate male orphans to preserve it. There's a vanity buried deep in there too, but Opera North didn't quite give us the study of it that we'd hoped. It was only skin deep, after all.

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This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?