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You’ve heard of Silent Disco. Prepare for Silent Opera. In a furniture store.

25 Oct
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Charles Dance as Figaro

First published in The British Theatre Guide

“We’re closed madam.”

I’m stopped by an overzealous shop attendant swooping over to hurry me out of the seemingly empty furniture store on Tottenham Court Road.  I check I’m not in Habitat by accident.

“I’m here for the opera,” I say hesitantly.  The words have an ‘open sesame’ effect and suddenly the attendant is all smiles.

“Right this way, straight to the back of the room and turn left.  Enjoy the show.”

I find myself in Heal’s ‘Spa’, surrounded by handmade soaps, receptacles made from blown glass and – tonight only – full champagne flutes.  My coat is taken and I’m handed a programme and a set of headphones.  The volume controls are explained to me and I’m instructed to enjoy the bubbles in this room until the performance starts.  Still trying to make sense of the proceedings, I negotiate my way around a large Molton Brown display to find Gok Wan fiddling with his headphones with the same air of bemused anticipation as everyone else.

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Natasha Day and Dominic Kraemer

The lights dim, we self-consciously slip on our headphones and hear Rossini’s orchestral introduction to Figaro’s opening aria.  I heard Charles Rice before I saw him, moving through the ‘audience’ pausing to rest a hand on a shoulder here or give a wry smile there.

The end of his aria saw us guided upstairs to the ‘Designer Room’ where, among the carefully curated dining sets, we perched to watch a series of excerpts from La Boheme and La Traviata, performed exquisitely by Natasha Day, Oliver Johnston and Katherine Crompton.  Then up the spiral staircase to the strains of Dido’s Lament before ending up in the ‘Sleep Studio’ to watch Mimi die on a Tempur mattress surrounded by the full cast of six.

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Natasha Day and Katherine Crompton

Lasting under an hour and cleverly weaving together themes from different operas, it’s a perfect introduction to the genre for those unwilling to commit themselves to a three-hour production or to the emotional undertaking of traditional opera.  The creative use of a commercial space is exciting, especially in a genre that often struggles under the weight of its own traditions.  Director Daisy Evans, a recent recipient of the Sky Arts Futures Fund, says this is only the beginning.  “In my next project, I want to explore the relationship between the performance and the audience using Bluetooth technology and real-time social media updates from around the venue.”  Here’s one to watch.

Silent Opera’s last performance at Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road is Wednesday 23rd October 2013.  Tickets https://heals-silent3.eventbrite.com/

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OPERA 24’s COSI FAN TUTTE at the ARCOLA THEATRE

1 Aug
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Danae Eleni, Louisa Tee and Sophie Yelland

Appeared in The British Theatre Guide 31st July 2013

Rating ***

With a run of only four nights, you might have imagined Opera 24 would give themselves less work and use their modernisation of Cosi Fan Tutte as an excuse to cut Mozart’s opera down to a more manageable length.  But not a bit of it.  Running just under three hours, theirs is as faithful to the original as you can be – well, with a reworked English libretto catapulted into the twenty-first century.  And that’s the balance this production seeks: between honouring the eighteenth-century original and creating a new piece of entertainment for a modern audience.

On the whole it does this well.  Brian David’s English version, though far from subtle and lacking linguistic nuance, stops short of translating the all-important eponymous lyric and cleverly holds onto one Italian aria by turning it into a performance by Ferrando – a neat bit of metatheatricality for the audience.  The seven-piece orchestra, conducted by John Jansson (who also scored the arrangement), is a welcome alternative to the solo piano or orchestral recording often used in smaller opera productions.

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Andre Refig and Danae Eleni

The casting is excellent: Louisa Tee (Fiordiligi) and Sophie Yelland (Dorabella)’s voices meld into a tapestry of warm sound, and Tee treats the audience to her full soprano strength in her second Act aria.  Danae Eleni (Despina) shows off her range and the supported power of her voice through her different disguises.  Among the male voices Christopher Jacklin (Guglielmo) stands out, with a smooth and easy range, while Andre Refig (Don Alfonso) brings the recitative alive through his vocal acting, pompously enjoying the plosives and angrily spitting consonants.

The success of a modern English libretto like this one relies on a cast with the acting ability to make it plausible and – in this case – comic.  Jacklin and Edward Saklatvala (Ferrando)’s comic duo has one foot in television double acts like Mitchell and Webb and the other rooted in Cosi’s opera buffa tradition.  Their reappearance in the second scene as a couple of Californian “dudes”, jeans riding lower with each swagger, had the audience in stitches.  Ferrando’s discomfort in espousing both his new character and false moustache are portrayed by Saklatvala with comic skill rarely seen in opera.  Here the updating of Albanians to Kosovans (when Despina speculates as to the identity of the two newcomers) is politically apt.  Settling on American identities works well, and although the accents are initially distracting, it makes sense for the pair to disguise what is their most identifying feature in the context of an opera – their voices.  It was a shame on opening night that Saklatvala dropped his American accent in the second Act.

The acting is strong enough to hold an audience’s attention, but a little more creativity with the set wouldn’t have gone amiss.  In fantastic space like the Arcola, it would have been easy to set the few scenes with minimal furniture.  The four identical chairs (seemingly grabbed from the audience) which constitute the set would have been more effective had their design related to the character to which they are linked.  Blocking was by and large ok, although a few trip-ups and collisions betrayed a lack of coherent direction.  And the lighting seemed incoherent, occasionally changing at odds with the mood of the scene.

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Sophie Yelland and Louisa Tee

This occasional lack of integrity is the production’s only problem.  It takes enough liberties with Lorenzo da Ponte’s original libretto to fill the opera with modern jokes, but doesn’t quite take that freedom to its creative zenith.  A lighting sequence during Ferrando’s second Act aria in which he moves from lit square to lit square onstage is creative, but it bears no relation to the rest of the production’s lighting and so fails to signify anything.  This sequence could have been used to symbolize an ongoing game of noughts and crosses between the sexes had there been any use of lighting to this effect elsewhere.

The odd lack of cohesion is a small price to pay for an adaptation that mostly manages to strike a pleasing balance between eighteenth and twenty-first century versions of Cosi.  Most importantly, it’s a great evening’s entertainment.

Opera 24’s Cosi Fan Tutte is performed on:

30th, 31st July

2nd, 3rd August

Buy tickets here.

DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES at Grange Park Opera, Hampshire

11 Jun

An evening of visual austerity is rewarded with richness of sound.

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In a climate that continues to be cash-strapped for the arts, Poulenc’s second opera – written as he suffered a breakdown – is a daring choice for privately funded Grange Park Opera. Conspicuously lacking the visual feast of Eugene Onegin’s ball or the accessibility of Italian bel canto in Puritani (both also playing at the Hampshire opera house this season), Dialogues des Carmélites isn’t a crowd-pleasing blockbuster aimed at lifting the generous spirits of potential sponsors in the audience. It demands a level of engagement in both subject matter and music that requires an investment of energy from the audience.

Director John Doyle seems to find this a challenge, especially in the opening scenes during which the largely recitative nature of Carmélites establishes itself. In fact there are no real arias in the opera, and drama is at a minimum, apart from at the end of each act. Audience members having rushed from work to make curtains up could be forgiven for drifting off when confronted with Liz Ascroft’s austere set and Poulenc’s at times dissonant “dialogues”.

The bare stage and unchanging scene create the self-denial and claustrophobia of the nuns during their persecution. But they also force our attention to where, arguably, it should always be: on the music and performances. Thankfully most of the cast hold their own in this department. Hye-Youn Lee brings vocal depth to Blanche, moving around the music and the French dexterously enough to make the fiendish part seem easy. Her duet with Nicky Spence’s Chevalier is brimming with barely restrained emotion. Anne-Marie Owens’ Old Prioress is captivating in her dying scene, the theological battle raging inside communicated through the force of her soaring contralto. Though a young voice, Soraya Mafi as Sister Constance rises above the orchestra with a purity of tone where other more developed voices in the cast fail. Nigel Robson’s Chaplain seemed to stumble on the French but made up for it with a sensitive tenor performance.

Those who make the effort to engage are rewarded with the full sensuality of a score that belies Poulenc’s membership of Les Six and harks back to the flowing sounds of Debussy – admirably performed by the English Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Stephen Barlow. Indeed, Carmélites is as much an opera for the large orchestra it requires for its gorgeous motifs, as it is for the singers with their haunting harmonies.

While the finale is as gruesomely tragic as any Puccini, the horror happens offstage in this production. The emphasis is on contemplation, emotion and spirituality rather than on entertainment – for the audience as much as the characters. For audience members willing to enter into this spirit, the experience is a unique one. As Poulenc himself said of Carmélites, people won’t find it exactly amusing, but I think they will be deeply moved. Grange Park Opera’s Chief Executive Wasfi Kani will be hoping the movement is in the right direction.

For tickets click here.

GET IN WHILE STOCKS LAST: BALLO AT THE KINGS HEAD THEATRE

24 May

ImageIt was a full house last night as an audience of everything from grey-topped opera lovers to opportunistic drinkers crammed into the tiny theatre at the back of Islington’s King’s Head for director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s camped-up ride through Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.  And that’s the appeal of this irreverent mash-up of an opera historically familiar with rewritings at the hands of the censors: it understands what pub opera is – accessible enough for the non-initiated and inventively new for the devotees.

The cartoon plot exposition opening the show, far from giving the game away (how many audience members at Covent Garden are surprised by the ending of Aida or Tosca anyway?) acts as a neat bridge between the 1859 and 2013 versions.  By dispensing early with the business of Verdi’s plot, the cast can get on with entertaining their 21st century audience with more freedom.

And that they certainly do.  Re-located to the IKEA at Wembley, re-scripted in bawdy modern English and re-timed to two hours, the six-strong team control the small space with a slickness deserving of a bigger stage.  Ensemble singing is well-timed and most solo performances are strong.  In a sensible modern update Oscar, the female trouser role, is played by a male soprano (Alan Richardson) whose vocal ease is almost eclipsed by his fabulously camp flouncing.  His pairing with a thoroughly modernised Ulrica (played superbly by Olivia Barry) suggests a sort of Shakespearean comedy duo, embracing the tradition of the pub venue rather than seeking to transcend it.

Much of the comedy comes from the bathos of distilling Verdi’s universal and epic themes of loyalty, friendship and revenge down into the office politics of flat-packing and pay rises.  It’s the gossip around the office that Tom (Dickon Gough) delights over when Amelia’s veil falls, rather than a king’s betrayal of his best friend.  And yet the ‘car park scene’ is rescued from farce by the strength of Gough’s vocal performance.

The secret of this adaptation is that it doesn’t seek to be anything it’s not, nor to emulate big budget productions of the same opera.  By embracing its limitations with as much affection as it does the original libretto, it succeeds in something much harder than putting on a good Verdi: making opera enjoyable for the next generation of theatre-goers.

The store closes this Sunday so get in quick.

You can buy tickets here.