Friday, 30 August 2013

The Crocodile, Tete a Tete Opera Festival

One of the most popular operas of this year's Tete a Tete festival, The Crocodile - an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name - turned out to be a riotous delight. Little expense had been spared in producing this black comedy (in which a writer is eaten by the eponymous reptile, a sort of Expo exhibit, before it is discovered that he is actually alive and determined to take a sabattical in his new environment). A two-tier set with a staircase behind which an orchestra of a dozen or so play throughout held a similarly sized-cast. The buffoonish hosts (Leandros Taliotis & Kris Belligh) and [un]fortunate writer (Graham Neal) are engaged throughout in an underplayed class war with Christina Petrou's maid, recalling the setup of Puccini's Rondine which had only just finished playing over the other side of London at the Royal Opera House. The finesse of this quartet dovetailed well with the nicely controlled Guignol of the posh guests (James Soller & Jane Webster), a reporter (Alexander Beck), a familiar figure for those of us who had seen the not entirely dissimilar Orango a few months ago. The ensemble was well-seasoned with the more parlando deliver of Peter Corry in a raconteur role.

If the ensemble was crowned with the remarkable coloratura (and stage bravura) of Kristy Swift as the author's wife then the piece is well and truly pimped in Alex Sutton's production as the almost magic realism of the situation is exploded in a every conceivable trappings of the most extravagant ticker-tape reception. Even if the piece can't quite hold its own high-rev opening throughout, it certainly ends with all its showbiz artillery well and truly exhausted. And, of course, at its heart is a crocodile, marvellously manipulated on-stage and then touchingly danced in postlude by Caroline Mathias.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Black Sand, Tete a Tete Opera Festival

Imagine if some nincompoop - hey, maybe some visionary - had run two reels of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet over one another simultaneously. That's partly the effect of the spooky Americana-opera calling itself Black Sand (a fallen angel-style version of the Sandman).

Nathanael - James D Hall, acting winningly as well as singing under the hem of his countertenor range - is determined to confess his paranoia to his girlfriend before they go steady, an early trauma getting psychologically blended with the horror of dreamtime. He can't seem to determine what is waking and what is dreaming though. The opera is based on the short story by ETA Hoffmann - the idealised object of Nathanael's very real affection is even called Olympia, as in the mannequin-perfect soprano of Offenbach's opera on the same subject. As Olympia, Caroline Kennedy is not called upon to dispense show-stopping coloratura, but sings with an undeniably affecting line. Nicolas Dwyer's Sandman, though game-show slick on the outside, sings with a rougher hue (and great range) which helps direct our allegiances; his chorus of Alexandra Mathew, Rose Stachniewska & Oliver Marshall are the over-painted mid-west cartoon grotesques of a Lynchian Club Silenzio.

An additional character of the opera is the sound design. The incessant industrial hiss, familiar from another of Lynch's canon, Eraserhead, is persistently evocative and irritating. It seems to be sampled from the various interjections that jump out across the fourth wall as if the background noise of 1950s American media is suddenly coming to life in the auditorium.

With all this going on, Na’ama Zisser's score gets reduced in memory to a functional tapestry of reasonably paced episodes matching the drama (this is a boon, not a dismissal!). The production is sound and the whole tight and effective. I'm not sure I understand it all the time but I certainly feel it.

Battles Within And Without, Re:Sound

With the Tete-a-Tete and Grimeborn Festivals in London and the variety of the fringe from Camden to Edinburgh, there is a great deal of operatic experimentation on offer in the next few weeks. Manchester-originated music theatre company Re:Sound have got ahead of the 'season' with an intriguing show staging baroque and 20th century choral music.

Battles Within And Without moves its psychological, emotional and reported conflict into the demonstrable open, staging music principally designed for concert performance. The drama and narrative of Judith Weir's Missa del Cid and Monteverdi's Madrigali Guerriri e Amoroso (with the additional Si Dolce) are nothing without the dramatic gesture, even in bare performance and this was the purpose of the show.

By way of acclimatisation, the company first performed contemporaneous choral works in a conventional concert manner. Gesualdo's motets from the Responsories got a treatment that was rather more concerned with the colour and chiaroscuro of the music (and the dying light outside) than the oleaginous, sexual underbelly of its progressive harmony, in keeping with its liturgical texts and the church (St Magnus the Martyr) hosting the performance.

James Macmillan's Bring us O Lord God and Herbet Howells' Take him, Earth, for cherishing were excellent programming choices alongside the Gesualdo, of a consistent harmonic mobility.

The staged works, the second half of the evening, received a comprehensive work-over, within the means and imagination of the company. Those not singing in any given Monteverdi madrigal might be accompanying the performance on instruments from the (expected) harpsichord to the (unexpected) accordion. The staging - interspersed with abstracted audio-visual screening, and punctuated with carefully manipulated lighting - moved from literal role-assumption to more responsive choreography. Particularly impressive was the ensemble singing in music that is often inherently fluid, quasi-parlando (the performance is given without conductor).

Judith Weir's Missa del Cid, as the starting point of the project, incorporated the entire company again. Taking it in turns to narrate between the more formal mass sections, the group continued to use the minimal stage furniture of boxes, introduced during the Monteverdi, adding scrims and veils of scarlet material. I felt that this was the most effective sequence of the evening, essentially because of the more settled harmonic basis of the music, allowing the performers greater ensemble security from which to hazard expression and allow the drama out. The evening I attended was also attended by the composer; I can only imagine that she would be satisfied by treatment and performance alike.