Monday, 12 August 2013

Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival - a second helping

Dionysios Kyropoulos and Alberto Prandini in Danyal Dhony and Becca Marriot's The Secretary Turned CEO at Tete a Tete the Opera Festival. (c) Claire Shovelton
Dionysios Kyropoulos and Alberto Prandini
in The Secretary Turned CEO (c) Claire Shovelton
A visit to Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is always a varied and thought provoking experience. We went along on Sunday 11 August and saw three pieces which took very different starting points. Thus presenting us with a variety of ideas for what opera is (see also Hilary's guest posting about her visit to Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival on Thursday 7 August). Danyal Dhondy's The Secretary Turned CEO (presented by Lucid Arts and Music with Dionysios Kyropoulos, Charlie Drummond and Alberto Prandini) re-worked Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona into a a hilarious, accessible modern farce. Tom Floyd's MICROmegas gave us the first act of a new SciFi opera based on Voltaire (presented by Shadow Opera Group with Alex Bevan, Jan Capinski, Richard Downing, Robert Garland, Sophie Goldrick and Emily Griffiths), whilst Paul Everndon's Guilt based on texts by Hildegard of Bingen (with Sibylla Meinenberg and Jeanna L'Esty) had us discussing whether it was an opera at all.

Dhondy's The Secretary Turned CEO, with libretto by Becca Marriot, was first tried out at one of Second Movement's Rough for Opera evenings (see their blog).  The piece combines a new libretto with arrangements of Pergolesi's original arias and new recitatives, set for an ensemble consisting of double bass (Diccon Cooper), guitar (Oliver Weeks) and piano/violin/melodica (Danyal Dhondy). Dhondy and Marriot wanted to try to re-capture the original’s scandalous aesthetic.

The plot is very simple, in Pergolesi's opera a maid servant has designs on her master and it is she who is the lynchpin in running the household, there is also a comic (silent) servant. Dhondy and Marriot transferred this to modern Britain. Henry (Dionysios Kyropoulos) runs a toilet roll company 'Soft Sheets', except he is more concerned about his cappuccino and it is his PA, Serena (Charlie Drummond) who runs the company. They have an Italian speaking intern from the EU (Alberto Prandini).

The piece opened with an hilarious sequence with Prandini talking in Italian on the phone to his mama, then making free with the office in brilliant dance/physical theatre sequence. This set the tone for the whole piece. Anna Gregory's direction was fast and furious, keeping the lively pace of the original and re-interpreting the piece in modern terms.

Kyropoulos, who is about to start studying for an MPhil at Cambridge, proved a superb comedian with a very physical way with him and extremely expressive eyes. He was ably abetted by Charlie Drummond as the his 'straight woman' who presented a very poised and sharp performance as Serena. Prandini was simply beyond funny as the non-speaking servant. Dhondy's re-workings of Pergolesi were imaginative and kept the piece's energy. The short opera had us all in stitches and certainly deserves to be seen again.

Tom Floyd's MICROmegas to a libretto by David Spittle, is based on a Voltaire short story and is a sci-fi romp across the universe. We were presented with act one, three scenes in which we first discovered the giant Micromegas (Jan Capinski) who has written a book which goes against the repressive society's worship of snails. Instead of being prosecuted he walks away, determined to search the universe for truth.

In the second scene we come across a group of humans who are on their way back from mapping the Arctic. The trip was unsuccessful and they have a blank map, but the captain (Robert Garland) is bullish though the others bicker. A curious figure, Pere Jules (Jan Capinski) tells a rather drunken story of his life.

Micromegas arrives on Saturn and meets the monks, who write about their own inner worlds. He takes a fancy to their apprentice (Richard Downing) whom Micromegas calls Dwarf, the two finally leave together.

Floyd accompanied the work with an ensemble of 10 and the results were highly accomplished with some lovely orchestral textures (Floyd's writing is basically tonal, but complex). His vocal lines were sympathetically written for voices, but never quite memorable. The hard working cast of six, Alex Bevan, Jan Capinski, Richard Downing, Robert Garland, Sophie Goldrick, Emily Griffiths, all played multiple roles and gave fine performances. Anna Koukoullis's production, designed by Cecile was very imaginative, but the disparate nature of the plot made it difficult to appreciate just how the work would hang together, and it left us with just a tantalising glimpse of what might be in the finished work.

My initial instinct is that Floyd and his librettist, David Spittle, have their work cut out not only because there are so many disparate characters, but also because science-fiction is tricky in opera, we need far more of the back story than a libretto and music can give.
Sybilla Meinenberg and Jeanna L'Esty in Paul Evernden's Guilt at Tete a Tete the Opera Festival (c) Claire Shovelton
Sybilla Meinenberg and Jeanna L'Esty in
Guilt (c) Claire Shovelton
Finally a short piece by Philip Everndon which combined live electronics and video, with performance in an examination of the relationship between Hildegard of Bingen (Sybila Meinenberg) and her mentor Jutta of Spanheim, (Jeanna L'Esty). The solo roles were speaking roles, with the two combining just once to sing a Latin hymn to the virgin. Hildegard's visions were purely spoken, but everything was surrounded by the complex and highly fascinating accompaniment from Richard Jones on viola, and Angela Najaryan on violin. Sometimes playing acoustically, sometimes electronically enhanced, their performance involved speaking as well and Paul Evernden's live electronics were highly evocative. The performances from all concerned were superb, with both Najaryan and Jones involved in using many extended techniques on their instruments.

This was a brave and challenging work with must be classed as music theatre rather than opera. It was a short, intense experience but what I missed was a sense of Hildegard's own voice as preserved in her music. Whilst I can appreciate that Evernden was interested in keeping the piece short and concentrated, I felt that interleaving the scenes with some of Hildegard's own contemplative music would have been of great benefit.

All three operas gave us a different idea about what contemporary opera really is, and seeing all three in close proximity was very thought provoking. We also caught two of the Light Bites in the foyer, a curious piece about two Russian children that was rather taken over by the sheer busy-ness of activity in the foyer. And a hilarious one with a young man being prevented from committing suicide by his cat (done as a very funny puppet), both finely sung and accompanied by just cello and piano-accordion.


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