Sunday, 4 August 2013

Dinner opera at the diner – Roma and La Plus Forte

Bold Tendencies - Kate Whitley - Roma
Running since 2007, this year the summer event Bold Tendencies includes the London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF 2013). Housed in the top four floors of Peckham car park, the project has both a community and international focus, and the two operatic vignettes Roma by Kate Whitley and La Plus Forte by Gerald Barry, were performed as part of its ‘experience based works and clusters of related happenings’.

The open plan space of the car park was, for one evening, turned into a restaurant. Industrial inspired tables made from steel boxing and insulation were suspended from the ceiling and patrons lucky enough to get seats sat on similar, and remarkably sturdy, benches. A long bar off to one side and one row of tables were reserved for diners.

The event was very free in format - after about 15 minutes, while performers arrived and the diners were sat, a man at the bar in a crumpled cream suit began to sing. Charles Rice was superb as Roma the disillusioned estate agent of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross. This piece was commissioned by LCMF2013 for the festival. Out of context the monologue could be about any part of life and epitomises the despair of modern living.

In this setting Roma was mesmerising. Rice walked though and around the audience, even sitting down at one of the tables, and much of his monologue was conversational in pitch. Whitley’s accompaniment was very sympathetic to the text and the venue - silences were highlighted by trains, the winds rustling the trees, and the noise from the bar upstairs. Reaching its climax when Roma lets his worries go with the words ‘I will deal with it’, the piece becomes less and less coherent and more fragmented towards the end.

This small opera was so well designed and performed that it was almost impossible to distinguish the musicians from the soloist; they merged into the venue and ambient noise to become one event, each part supporting the other.

After an interval for the diners to be served some more food, and for the rest of the performers to arrive, the world premiere La Plus Forte began in a similarly surreptitious way. This performance by Allison Bell and the silent Pippa Wildwood which began with them sat at one end of the diner’s table also used much of the space available and, similarly to Roma, was emotionally captivating.

Barry’s one act opera, based on the play The Stronger by August Strindberg and translated into French by Georges Perros and Tage Aurell, was originally commissioned by Radio France for the 2007 Festival Presences (a translation was projected onto one wall of the car park). The play is thought to be semi-autobiographical, being based on Strindberg’s wife finding out about an affair and confronting his mistress.
Bigger in scale than Roma (longer, louder, with more musicians), La plus forte was beautifully acted and a big sing. Moments of dry humour, such as turning a doll’s head round in a full circle, added some relief to the intensity of Bell’s Madame X as she slowly realises that her friend, Mademoiselle Y, must be her husband’s lover. Powerful moments were accentuated with higher arpeggios from Bell and balanced by the orchestra chugging along, often in unison, changing instrumentation to change register.

By the end Madam X realises that she is the stronger of the two because she has changed to become her husband’s perfect woman – ‘Thank you for teaching my husband to love! Now I am going home, to love him.’

These could both be called a modern opera for a modern audience – short, soap style insights into the modern human condition.

LCMF 2013 runs until the 5th August. The website suggests that even though the free tickets are already taken there should be places available for remaining performances at the door. Bold Tendencies continues through September.
review by Hilary Glover

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