Thursday, 20 October 2016

Lost In The Stars, Highbury Opera Theatre


'It's fear. Fear of the few for the many; fear of the many for the few.'

Last night I attended the final performance of Highbury Opera Theatre's production of Lost In The Stars, Kurt Weill's final musical of 1949. It's a world away from the rasping, Brechtian sewer of the Threepenny Opera (which I saw at the National Theatre at the beginning of the month). However, for all that its language is the Rogers & Hammerstein side of Gershwin and its message given in modern, broad stroke American vernacular its still a tough story of racial division. This is, exasperatingly, a refreshed subject of current events, both here and abroad. Indeed, the grander themes of truth and mistrust are also the most contentious issues emerging from the current American presidential election campaigns. It is present.

There is no shrinking from message or music in what Highbury Opera Theatre offer. This is in no small measure because of the involvement of the community, making up the vast majority of the cast and ensemble, including no fewer than four children's choruses. It is also worth noting that the febrile atmosphere in the Union Chapel was that this sense of community involvement was woven right into the back seats of the auditorium. There is little sense of division in such an enterprise, no consumer-expectation. Tickets are bought to support friends, family and the work of neighbours rather than in pursuit of another London entertainment.

With this investment that starts before the box office, the audience offer attentiveness. In return, the company are not shy. The story is one of difficult decisions made to get by and grasping the responsibility of those choices both in the present and for the future. South African costuming and accents season the colour and dynamism of the staging, including a brilliant sequence with a multi-piece cardboard train. The fun contrasts violently and effectively with the pathos of dramatic corners in which all are fully invested. The children's set-piece, Big Mole, may bring the house down but it is just one of many admirable turns that defy niggling criticism with properly earnest performance.

Driving the show is the energetic Scott Stroman, complete with 12 piece band. Good work all round.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

La Boheme up even closer

I caught the final Boheme in a run at King's Head Theatre at the weekend. This isn't the long-running, genre-defining Opera Up Close version but rather the King's Head Theatre's own production in a new adaptation by their director Adam Spreadbury-Maher.

We haven't quite reached the end of the new wave that began above a pub in Kilburn - and in the pub in Kilburn - that pioneered bijou, site-specific, alternative productions in vernacular translation that's taken opera out to IKEA, Victorian tunnels, an asylum chapel, the workplace and the street. However the comparison between the Opera Up Close Boheme I saw in 2010 and this latest version is worth considering for a moment.

What's changed then? Well, The King's Head cut the opera down beyond even the arrangement, removing characters to leave a cast of four - Marcello, Rodolfo, Mimi & Musetta. Most of the time this means removing sequences or even scenes, occasionally just re-appropriating music to a different character or the band. Interestingly, the band has grown 100% from Up Close, the piano being joined by a cello (the string instrument a pleasant addition, both focusing the intimacy of the drama and also seasoning the Gallic flavour in Puccini's Parisian score). The playing has improved beyond measure from the first experiments. No-one leaves the single-set space but the audience engagement is even more consistent. It's down to the chutzpah and professionalism of the cast that this comes off the right side of panto.

What remains is the punchy modernity of the text - and the fact that its often the incongruity of words that pulls laughter, rather than jokes in context of the opera. Laughing at, rather than with: I'm not convinced its a good thing. One has to be rather careful with profanity, as one must be careful with contemporary political reference and modern drug abuse. It's funny how the one thing that a modern Boheme (specifically) can get away with is the use of multiple digital devices, given the basic penury of the characters of the original. Text & social media messaging is sufficiently ingrained into the vernacular that it resists note.

The new impetus in opera in the past decade which no doubt galvanised the Up Close movement is the need to re-invigorate the dramatic purpose of the genre (let alone the repertoire). Both shows do this. Naturally, something of Puccini's intention is sacrificed. The melodic calibre of the score is such that this shines through though. However, one thing that no manipulation of the artform can game-change (to appropriate a term) is the need for good singing, especially in a small space when the work at hand is designed for a medium to large lyric theatre; a mixed cast in this respect is the one consistent thread through performances of Boheme at close quarters over the last 7 years.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Lyric Theatre, 2016: Threepenny Opera, Don Giovanni

Last week I saw the National Theatre's Threepenny Opera. Then, a couple of nights ago, I caught the second night of ENO's new Don Giovanni. The two shows are good and, moreover, offer an up-to-date cross section of what's going on in sung theatre in London right now.

There's a flattening out of the artform at work. The singing of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera was largely very good, albeit amplified. The stage work of the cast of Mozart's Don Giovanni was meticulous and succeeded in changing the weave of the fabric of stories that flesh out the eponymous Rake's fall. The band for the Weill played on stage. The off-stage band for the Mozart played on stage (in boxes).

Above all in both pieces there was a sobriety and urgency that seemed designed to maintain the direction, focus and temperature of the drama. Though a little far apart in subject matter, both are moral fables. Don Giovanni focuses on the sexual flamboyance and moral comeuppance of the aristocratic title character. The Threepenny Opera reverses the point of view: those of the cast who are not stereotypically immoral are quickly shown to be cut from the same illicit cloth ; everyone barely keeps their nose above the sewer water until a happy denouement in which all are pardoned by decree of a King under threat of exposure for his own ill judgement.

We're at the start of a peculiar and, frankly, shady period in social and political history. This is what I got from these highly polished, thoughtful but above all urgent productions. The humour of both was weighed down with the serious faces and the notable extremes of movement.

Rory Kinnear's Macheath was a masterclass in projecting menace by standing very still in direct and constant juxtaposition of the company's crisp movement throughout the whole of the Olivier's stripped-back stage. Christopher Purves' is not as static as Kinnear's Macheath but he still moves at a measured pace (and sings consistently in a carefully considered, almost interior, smooth mezza voce) whilst all around the rest of the cast move restlessly, an ensemble of insecurity. The only other comparable, oleaginous character, the Commendatore, dies in the first phase of action.

I have long found the tight stage work of the 'straight' theatre and Music Theatre (captials, sic) to be an admirable characteristic. The intent of the Threepenny Opera's staging works hand in glove with this. Though I found that the pace of the Coliseum production hurried the music more than I'm used to (I took part in a rather more traditional production of Don Giovanni in this respect earlier in the year), the drama was utterly thrilling. The pit was working in close tandem with the staging. I was completely dazed by the sheer torque of the drama by the end of the first half.

Clearly the demands of credible, convincing theatre has reached the rehearsal stage of major opera companies. The final issue will be clearing up the demands of crisp, English-language text delivery with the acoustic singing that is the hallmark of opera. At a technical level these are both fascinating and rather exceptional shows. Dramatically, today, they are discomfiting too.