Oxford Philomusica’s long-awaited operatic debut last weekend was, in itself, a cause for rejoicing. The fact that this production, in the capable hands of Metta Theatre’s Poppy Burton-Morgan, was such a captivating explorat-ion of the foibles of human nature, was a triumph.

Determined to portray the characters as “real people rather than archetypes”, Burton-Morgan transported the story to wartime Britain, an era of emotional fragility in which people were more likely to clutch at opportun-ities for love and happiness in the face of impending disaster, making the sisters’ rapid change of heart more believable and justifiable.

The setting became an apple farm in a Kent coastal village; Fiordiligi and Dorabella were land girls, while Ferrando and Guglielmo were soldiers who disguised themselves as American GIs.

Updating a well-known opera is always a risk, but Da Ponte’s story is one that could be transposed into almost any setting and era and still work, and this one was a perfect fit. It helped that Burton-Morgan never lost sight of the fact that this is intended to be a romantic comedy, and her subtle fem-inist message was overlaid with some genuinely heart-warming moments and a generous dollop of humour.

The four lovers were ably played by Thomas Hobbs (Ferrando), Benedict Nelson (Guglielmo), Julia Kogan (Fiordiligi) and Martha Jones, who took over Dorabella from an indisposed Anna Lapkovskaja at short notice. There was some fine singing all round, but it was Julia Kogan, in Fiordiligi’s demanding arias, who stood out, both vocally and dramatically. Her Act 2 lament, as she struggled with her feelings, was a tour de force.

The real scene-stealers, though, were Danae Eleni’s feisty Despina and Donald Maxwell’s wily Alfonso. Eleni was a delight; vivacious and mischievous, with a glorious voice to match, and her comic talents really shone when she was disguised as a notary. Donald Maxwell is another natural comedian who has only to raise an eyebrow to make an audience laugh, and his rich bass is always a joy.

The choir Echoris sang and acted well, while Marios Papadopoulos conducted the Philomusica with his usual precision and sensitivity.