Sunday, 19 August 2018

The Opera That Goes Wrong: Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe!

Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Colin Carmichael - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Colin Carmichael - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Giacomo Puccini, arr. Timothy Burke TOscatastrophe!; Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Ronald Samm, Keel Watson, Colin Carmichael, Bill Bankes-Jones, Timothy Burke Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 August 2018
The Tosca That Goes Wrong!

Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Ronald Samm, Colin Carmichael - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe!
Ronald Samm, Colin Carmichael - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Comedy in opera is a strange thing. The first thing you think of, perhaps, is a work like Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla where an essentially farcical plot is allied to music which can often be closely related to Rossini's music for his serious operas. A larger thought for this style of opera is, what is funny music? An alternative take is the opera which uses comedy of character, where the take on the piece can vary from farcical to downright serious (Donizetti's Don Pasquale hides some rather nasty issues, and Wagner thought of Die Meistersinger as a comedy though it deals with some pretty profound issues).

Another vein is the accidental comedy, the opera performance which goes wrong or where the performance is so bad that it is funny. This latter is, perhaps, not a style of comedy to which one would want to return too often. Alternatively, given that opera is so full of conventions, you might decide to send up the genre completely a la Monty Python, but that is a direction in which I would not want to go. This gives rise to the sense that opera as a genre is essentially ridiculous and should be sent up and not taken seriously.


These thoughts started buzzing in my mind after having a conversation after the final event of this year's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in which the subect of Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe! came up. This performance took place outdoors in Lewis Cubitt Square on Friday 10 August 2018 and was a shortened version of Puccini's Tosca, arranged by Timothy Burke and directed by Bill Bankes-Jones, which was designed to go wrong! The Opera That Goes Wrong, except this was done with love.

I did not write a review of the performance at the time, though we enjoyed it immensely, partly because I find it difficult to write about comedy and partly with such an unusual genre it was tricky to write a critique. But time for reflection has given us this article. If you are reading this and did not see Toscatastrophe then kick yourself hard, and make a note to attend  Tête à Tête's similar event next year.

Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Keel Watson - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Keel Watson - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
The basic premise was a shortened and very traditional performance of Tosca with a truly admirable cast, Gweneth-Ann Rand as Tosca, Ronald Samm as Cavaradossi and Keel Watson as Scarpia, three singers who it would be a pleasure to hear in a full version of the opera. They were aided (if that is the right word) by the actor Colin Carmichael. Timothy Burke accompanied on synthesizer whilst he and director Bill Bankes-Jones provided extra instrumental accompaniment at times, with a guest on recorder at one point and three hand-bell ringers.

We got all the 'good bits' and well sung to, this was a performance done with love and done from the position of intimate familiarity so whilst fun was made of the operatic conventions (and there is much to make fun of in a traditional production of Tosca, remember the bouncing lady at the end), we were never saying that opera is innately funny because it was a silly idea.

Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Bill Bankes-Jones, Sarah Playfair- Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe!
Bill Bankes-Jones, Sarah Playfair- Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Both Gwenneth-Ann Rand and Ronald Samm gave very solid, strong and unimpeachable performances, very much acting the diva and divo so that the chaos happened around them, yet there it in an age of naturalistic operatic acting there can be something innately funny in this style of opera performance, and both managed to make it all some completely unconscious. Entrances and exits were, of course, problematic, Gwenneth-Anne Rand lost her wig (of course) and she had a wonderful line in eye-rolling - an expressive technique not much used in serious opera production! Keel Watson gave us a slightly more louche villain, something perhaps a little music-hall about him and the results were hilarious.

Surrounding them was a chaos and cacophony of music. Timothy Burke accompanied in the manner of a 12-year-old with his first Cassio keyboard, eager to try out every single synthesized sound so that the sound world was a wonderful plethora of 1980s synth noises, added to which we had stray intrumental lines which always seemed to be the most inappropriate (recorders in Puccini!). I particularly liked the hand-bell ringers in the Te Deum in Act One and the prelude to Act Three, beautifully done, but somehow an innately funny sound. The chorus was provided by people sitting in the audience, primed I presume, and we were able to join in if we wanted.

Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
The afternoon had been profoundly rainy, so we were lucky that the evening was dry so that much fun was had by all. This type of comedy works only if done from a position of complete seriousness, which all concerned did so. So the results were wonderfully funny, yet we heard a thrilling 'Vittoria Vittora!' and a moving 'Vissi d'arte'.

And how did Tosca die, this being the 21st century she climbed into a wheelie bin, except of course in true diva fashion, Gwennth-Ann Rand refused and Colin Carmichael donned her wig and did the duty. Priceless.

More please next year!

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Bayreuth’s Parsifal provided a sensitive portrayal of humanity overcoming adversity (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • As important as ever: Opera Rara's mission to rediscover, record and perform rare opera  - interview
  • Hubert Parry - the complete string quartets (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the mouths of babes: Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (★★★)  - Opera review
  • if there were water - Two different, yet challenging contemporary choral pieces in this striking disc from the American choir, The Crossing (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bayreuth’s new production of Lohengrin has taken the Green Hill by storm (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Exploring advanced techniques: flautist Sara Minelli's New Resonances (★★★)   - CD review
  • Leaving on a high: final revival of Jan Philipp Gloger's production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Prom 42: the first Estonian orchestra at the Proms - Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra (★★★★½)  - concert review
  • A strong message on anti-semitism: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Edward Lambert's new Lorca-inspired chamber opera at Tête à Tête (★★½)  - Opera review
  • Still relevant & still controversial: Alex Mills' Dear Marie Stopes at the Wellcome Collection (★★★★½)  - Opera review
  • Politics, music and tonality: Keith Burstein and The Prometheus Revolution - interview
  • Home

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