Saturday, 6 October 2012

Tobias and the Angel, Highbury Opera Theatre

The converted church of the Union Chapel in Highbury is a super setting for a theatre work which is essentially a parable. With its glowering Victorian brickwork and polygonally arranged raked seating all but in the round, the drama of the space is natural. Into this space Highbury Opera Theatre have committed their first major undertaking, a production of Jonathan Dove's opera Tobias And The Angel, a piece specifically organised to incorporate local amateurs as well as the professionals needed for its principal roles and orchestral score. Highbury Opera Theatre under their director Scott Stroman have a clear committment to community involvement with substantial numbers of non-professional performers on stage, in the gallery, and several dozen children in the pews beside the pit. No doubt a substantial proportion of the audience were out in support of friends and family ahead of coming to see the piece itself, but no audience is the poorer for the premise, as long as the performance is honest and strong.

Honest and strong. This was certainly the temperament of the show. In the best sense this was an artless evening where storytelling and communication were paramount. Principally here was the modest but clear voice of Tobias himself, Nicholas Allen, a charming Tom Rakewell-like figure in reverse. His guiding Angel, Michael Harper was one of a number of triumphant stage presences of the evening, a compsed trope of lore who knows how to stand on stage with great authority and calm, and showing a functioning tenor to support his lower countertenor voice.

The eponymous duo are supported by a fairly extensive cast. Tobias' parents were Denver Martin Smith and Kathy Taylor Jones, essaying woe in a tone not of shrieking neurosis but of rocking, troubled water. At the other extreme Julian Alexander Smith's frustrated but loving father Raguel and Cathatrine Rogers as his wife Edna are at the mercy of more present drama - possible murder, suicide, and all its attendant paranoia. Punchy singing reaching to the back of the space, especially when Rogers' high soprano spoke across the ensemble, marked high points in the vocal writing and execution for me.

Tobias' journey takes him to Raguel and Edna's daughter - his cousin - who is apparently cursed with the inability preserve the life of any of her previous husbands. Siobhan Gibson's Sara was arguably the most affecting of the evening's protagonists and it was just a pity that a throat infection had seized the baritone Robert Gildon, who preys on her mind from the spectral periphery. If his voice (sung in from the wings as he walked the role) were in fit shape then, on the basis of his acting alone, the drama would have really thrown us about.

However, just as this piece is not a simple vehicle for a conventional opera company, so the drama is not exclusive to the score. There is a great deal of choreography, from an early wild party t and execution o a samller ensemble acting out the hazards of Tobias and the Angel's journey (I love this sort of crisp, economical staging). A well-drilled corps de ballet danced themselves into credibility as a river with a crucial solo (sequin-scaled!) fish. Above all I loved the little band of 'Raguel's Men', grave diggers chuckling their way through burying yet another of the boss' sons-in-law - a show stopping quartet, not least as their's is difficult music negotiated with a keen eye for Stroman's beat and much back slapping. Couldn't get enough of it. The children's chorus did their bit too with significant support from Sarah Wilkinson's embedded direction, all of them putting energy into the light of Dove's familiar augmented modal writing.

Louise Radinger's staging made great use of the space and available lighting - nothing overdone, a nice coup at the end for the pulpit in the centre of the stage - and the band were beyond reproach... and game, with a trio getting up on stage to become the Shofar dance band. There was a special feeling in the hall, with everyone looking past the imperfections and muddled conventions of an evening's theatre to get at the heart of the piece and to take something from performance and performers alike. One hopes that such a positive project continues to draw such support from either side of the footlights.

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