When you go to a student opera production, even at an institution as prestigious as the Royal Academy of Music, you don't expect to see one of the opera world's conducting legends in the pit. But that's precisely what we had at last night's performance of Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict, in the shape of Sir Colin Davis (CH, CBE), a man with several thousand opera performances on the clock.

Ross Ramgobin as Claudio © Royal Academy of Music
Ross Ramgobin as Claudio
© Royal Academy of Music

Davis gave us a masterclass in conducting. I'm sure that many of the singers will go on to have long and fruitful careers, but it may be a long time before they are in a production in which all elements of the orchestra, soloists, chorus and even on-stage guitar are so perfectly balanced. And Berlioz's delicious music was conducted with a lightness of touch that was a pure delight.

Based on Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, Béatrice et Bénédict is an unusual animal. Although written around 1860 at the height of the Romantic era, its vocal style is unashamedly bel canto - albeit with an accent that is totally French. The opera is constructed as a series of totally discrete musical numbers which each provide a vehicle for beautiful singing, interspersed with chunks of dialogue. For an English audience, the Royal Academy sensibly chose to do the dialogue in English (most of it the original Shakespeare text) and the musical numbers in French. But since the musical numbers are quite long in relation to their equivalents in the play, Berlioz was forced to drastically prune the plot (omitting, for example, the entire character of Don John and his machinations). The result is a sort of "vocal suite from Much Ado about Nothing" rather than a proper fully dramatic opera.

But that shouldn't be allowed to put you off. As long as you know the original Shakespeare, the scenes are thoroughly effective in enlightening the characters, and the music is utterly ravishing. There are elegant arias for each of the main roles, some rumbustious chorus numbers (especially the hymn to Sicilian wine that opens the second act), and a glorious single sex trio in each act - the men in the first and the women in the second - each of which showed lovely counterpoint between the different voice types.

The singing last night was all performed very creditably, although I had a clear sense of listening to voices that aren't yet quite the finished article. The closest was Rachel Kelly as Béatrice, whose phrasing and dynamics were exceptional throughout her range, and who acted with relish and a real sense of comic timing: with a little more warmth of timbre, she will be a mezzo to look out for. Also close to the real thing was Ross Ramgoblin as Claudio: it's a relatively small role, but I enjoyed his rich baritone voice. Jennifer France has an attractive soprano: she started a little uncertainly as Héro, with liberal use of the comfort blanket of vibrato, but improved quickly and gave us a fine rendering of the trills and spills at the end of her big aria Je vais le voir. Stuart Jackson was an engaging and lyrical Bénédict: his clear and light tenor belied his large frame, and I expect his voice will darken and strengthen with time.

John Copley had little trouble, I suspect, in conjuring up the sense of fun and light-heartedness from his cast. Everyone looked as if they were enjoying themselves thoroughly, and the enthusiasm suitably infected the audience. Costumes were an interesting mix of opulent Napoleonic uniforms, frock coats and ball gowns for the main roles and distinctly this-century suits and black dresses for the chorus, and a set of constantly shifting pillars worked well.

It's my second opera at the RAM's Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, and I'm once again impressed by the experience. The hall is comfortable, acoustics are excellent, and where else can you hear opera conducted by people of the quality of Sir Colin Davis or Jane Glover in such an intimate environment? If you can get tickets (and they do sell out pretty quickly) I think it's the best value an opera-goer in London can get. In last night's performance, the RAM's students certainly did them proud, and gave the audience a real feel-good lift.