Friday, 1 March 2019

A very modern Robin Hood: Dani Howard's new opera at The Opera Story

Dani Howard: Robin Hood - Oliver Brignall, Cliff Zammit Stevens, Nicholas Merryweather - The Opera Story (Photo Robert Workman)
Dani Howard: Robin Hood - Oliver Brignall, Cliff Zammit Stevens, Nicholas Merryweather - The Opera Story
(Photo Robert Workman)
Dani Howard Robin Hood; Nicholas Merryweather, Lorna Anderson, Sian Cameron, dir: Polly Graham, cond: Berrak Dyer; 
The Opera Story at CLF Art Cafe  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Dani Howard's passionate music overcomes a schematic libretto in this striking re-invention of the folk tale

Dani Howard: Robin Hood - Lorna Anderson - The Opera Story (Photo Robert Workman)
Dani Howard: Robin Hood - Lorna Anderson
The Opera Story (Photo Robert Workman)
Having given use new operas based on the fairy tales of Snow White in 2017 [see my review] and Goldilocks and the Three Bears mashed up with the Three Little Pigs in 2018 [see my review], The Opera Story returned to the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham on 27 February 2019 with a very modern operatic take on the folk-tale of Robin Hood with music by Dani Howard and a libretto by Zoe Palmer and Rebecca Hurst. Directed by Polly Graham, the production featured Nicholas Merryweather as Robin Hood, Lorna Anderson as Joanna, Sian Cameron as Marian, Oliver Brignall as Little John, Cliff Zammit Stevens as Will Scarlett and William Barter-Sheppard as the Boy. Berrak Dyer conducted the instrumental ensemble, and designs were by April Dalton.

Palmer, Hurst and Howard's take on Robin Hood was very contemporary. The plot centred around The Greenwoods, an area of ancient forest under pressure from contemporary society. Robin (Nicholas Merryweather) was politician, Lord of The Greenwoods, who also belonged to a secret society The Merry Men, an all-male hunting group with echoes of both the Masons and the Bullingdon Club. He is fighting a property developer, Joanna (Lorna Anderson) who has designs on The Greenwoods but who has lost a son, who it turns out was killed by Robin in a hunting accident. Robin's sister Marian (Sian Cameron) is a pro-Greenwoods activist.
The result was to turn the folk-hero into something of an anti-hero, whilst the ostensible villain was made sympathetic by her powerful response to the loss of her son. Even Marian was compromised as she does a deal with Joanna at the end. And it is Robin who ended the piece, finally paying the price for his killing of Joanna's son.

Palmer and Hurst's libretto was admirably concise, but it was far stronger on poetic allusion than on presenting details of the mechanics of the plot, which remained somewhat hazy. Also, the characterisation of Robin and his Merry Men as Country Life reading, tweed wearing toffs who slum it by hunting in the woods seem rather lazily approaching caricature, and I did wonder whether Palmer and Hurst actually liked their hero. Robin's final atonement for his crimes was rather badly prepared for, and other details such as Robin's intimate relationship with Little John were left undeveloped. The whole had a slightly earnest tone which sat uneasily with the element of caricature and the sending up of aristocratic mores.

Dani Howard: Robin Hood - William Barter-Sheppard, Nicholas Merryweather - The Opera Story (Photo Robert Workman)
Dani Howard: Robin Hood - William Barter-Sheppard, Nicholas Merryweather - The Opera Story (Photo Robert Workman)
Thankfully, the music, performance and production all rather supplied these lacks, to create a striking evening of music theatre.
Central to this was Dani Howard's richly rewarding music. She opened with what sounded like a cross between Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Dove, and throughout the evening the way she utilised repeated motifs, throbbing textures and changes of metre was familiar, yet she used these to create a strong emotional atmosphere which filled many of the gaps in the libretto. Added to this some highly expressive and singable lines, and the result was more than highly promising as a first opera, and certainly makes me want to know what she will do next.

Dani Howard: Robin Hood - Lorna Anderson - The Opera Story (Photo Robert Workman)
Dani Howard: Robin Hood - Lorna Anderson
The Opera Story (Photo Robert Workman)
Despite the character being rather unlikable, Nicholas Merryweather's powerful and vibrant performance as Robin certainly ensured that we were drawn in to his machinations. This was a larger than life figure, and Merryweather certainly filled the auditorium with character. His gradual coming to pieces was very well done, leading to a rather moving account of the final pages where he admits his crimes.

Lorna Anderson was clearly having a whale of a time, dressed for much of the opera as a man complete with a loud suit and false moustache, she projected a strong sense of Joanna's brash character, yet Anderson neatly revealed the more fragile undersurface of the character as she attempted to deal with the loss of her son.

Robin's sister Marian was not really well-enough defined, but Sian Cameron brought out the character's passion and powerful sense of identification with her cause. Oliver Brignall and Cliff Zammit Stevens as the two Merry Men went from providing robust support for Robin in the band's antics, to disenchantment and disengagement in a way which could of been made more of, to make their behaviour rather more disturbing.

The treble, William Barter-Sheppard was superb as the young murdered boy who wanders throughout the plot, disturbing those who see him.

The performance took place in two different spaces in the building, Acts One and Two on the third floor and Act Three on the second floor. Neither space was a theatre and in both, the audience sat on opposite sides of the space with the orchestra at one end and the performance in the space in the middle. This created an intimate and evocative experience, particularly as designer April Dalton had imaginatively dressed out each space, but there were compromises in terms of balance between singers and instruments, and the ability of the singers to project words.

Berrak Dyer did wonders at keeping her forces in control despite poor sightlines for the singers and the difficulty of coordinating singers and orchestra in a rather challenging non-theatrical space. She and the orchestra brought out the strong character of Howard's score.


Dani Howard: Robin Hood - Nicholas Merryweather - The Opera Story (Photo Robert Workman)
Dani Howard: Robin Hood - Nicholas Merryweather - The Opera Story (Photo Robert Workman)
I loved the way designer April Dalton filled the space for Acts One and Two with found objects ranging from framed prints and Country Life magazines to stuffed animals, creating more of an installation than an opera set.

Polly Graham's lively and action-packed production helped to keep things moving and helped to create a vibrant theatrical event. Whilst it might not have been clear what was going on all the time (and words were sometimes at a premium), there was no doubt the vivid theatricality and physical enjoyment that the opera created.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Sparkling delight: Coloratura Offenbach from Jodie Devos (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Celebration time: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Grand Théâtre de Genève (★★★★★) - Opera review 
  • Trapped in the underworld with a surly teenager: Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon's The Monstrous Child  (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Contemporary yet romantic: Noah Mosley's Aurora debuts at Bury Court Opera's swansong season (★★★½) - opera review
  • The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis - interview
  • Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (★★) - CD review
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Sweeter than Roses: music of Purcell & his contemporaries from Anna Dennis & Sounds Baroque  - (★★) CD review
  • Sung Poetry: Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper - From the Pens of Women (★★) - concert review
  • Choral music for Advent and Christmas from Portsmouth  - CD review
  • Love songs in Temple Church: Brahms and Schumann for Valentine's Day (★★★½) - concert review
  • Home


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