Sunday, 13 September 2020

A one-man Paradise Lost and an uproarious contemporary operetta: Tête à Tête brings live opera back to the Cockpit

Geoff Page: Paradise Lost - Lawrence Zazzo - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Geoff Page: Paradise Lost - Lawrence Zazzo - Tête à Tête 2020
(Photo Claire Shovelton)

Geoff Page Paradise Lost, Darren Berry The Crocodile of old Kang Pow; Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival at Cockpit

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 September 2020
Live opera indoors with an audience: a striking double bill of Milton's Lucifer and an uproarious Marquis de Sade

This year's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival took on an entirely new level of experiment and innovation. In addition to a programme of new and experimental opera, the company is pioneering live, indoor performance post-lockdown. So, along with around 20 other people we went along to the Cockpit Theatre on Saturday 12 September 2020, for two operas. Geoff Page's Paradise Lost (based on Milton), performed by Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor) and Geoff Page (piano), and act one of Darren Berry's The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow, with Caroline Kennedy and Phil Wilcox, directed by Christian Holder.

In order to be socially distanced, the sheer act of theatre going has changed considerably, audience numbers are far fewer and the process of getting in and out is far more logistically complex. But also, as artistic director of the festival, Bill Bankes Jones explained in his introduction, most of the productions in the festival have also had to be modified to follow the new rules. But the end result was that we were once again able to enjoy live performance.

Geoff Page's Paradise Lost uses text taken from Milton's epic to narrate the Fall from Lucifer's point of view. It is part one-man opera, part-song cycle and a series of solos for Lawrence Zazzo, accompanied by Page on the piano, were intercut with short pre-recorded spoken sections. The staging was minimal, and relied very much on Zazzo's considerable dramatic abilities; he is a very vivid performer and thoroughly incarnated Lucifer, the fallen angel whom Milton depicts as beautiful as well as fallen, and of course highly seductive. 

Geoff Page: Paradise Lost - Lawrence Zazzo - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Geoff Page: Paradise Lost - Lawrence Zazzo - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)

Page's lyrical, rhapsodic music for Zazzo used both the singer's counter-tenor and baritone ranges, sometimes in the same phrase, which brought an added element of colour and drama to the work. Page is known for his work on musicals (both as lyricist and composer), but the music here very much avoided a sense of musical theatre. The vocal lines were melodic but complex, clearly singer friendly but neither simple nor straight-forward and highly expressive. Page's piano accompaniment was rich in harmonies, and added an additional layer of complexity to the music. For one audience member we were chatting to, the music reminded him of Alan Bush.

The work lasted 60 minutes, and was surprisingly engrossing and engaging. Zazzo's fully rounded Lucifer grabbed our attention and held us mesmerised throughout. We had the words projected on a screen, but I think Zazzo's diction was such that we hardly needed them, and it was clear that he was really relishing the challenge created by Milton's words. 

There is something outrageous about digesting Milton's epic Paradise Lost (all ten thousand lines of verse) down to a 60 minute, one-man opera, but Page did it confidently and with great panache. I was not clear whether the work we were hearing was the finished article, or whether sketch of a larger version (greater instrumental forces for the accompaniment for instance). The opera is being broadcast on Tuesday 15 September, when there will also be a Q&A with the performers, full details from the festival website.

Darren Berry: The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow - Caroline Kennedy, Phil Wilcox - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Darren Berry: The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow - Caroline Kennedy, Phil Wilcox - Tête à Tête 2020
(Photo Claire Shovelton)

Darren Berry's Crocodile King of Old Kang Pow is a large-scale contemporary comic opera, of which we heard just Act One in a version specially created to fit the new rules, so that the performance involved just two singers, Caroline Kennedy and Phil Wilcox, and a mime artist (I think this was the show's creator, Darren Berry), with the other singers pre-recorded on film (Emily Raiher, Helen KariKari, Jackson Scott, Susan Harriott), directed by Christian Holder. The result was an intriguing and imaginative piece of theatre, mixing film with live action and the two interacting, often making good use of the dichotomy between the two.

The opera is a deliberately uproarious farce, in which the Marquis de Sade has lost his libido, but is summoned to the bed of Queen Marie Antoinette. In order to retrieve his libido, de Sade follows a mystical magician to find the Crocodile King of Kang Pow, a god of fertility. Berry's music is a deliberately uproarious mix of gospel, Gilbert & Sullivan, Offenbach and much much more. The text has a similar knowing element, and the opera proceeded at a remarkable pace, throwing out puns and rudery left, right and centre. The live performers were all required to perform a wide range of characters, with multiple costume changes, and did so with hilarious alacrity and vividness, making this element a part of the performance. It was a wild 40 minutes.

Darren Berry: The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow - Phil Wilcox - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Darren Berry: The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow - Phil Wilcox - Tête à Tête 2020
(Photo Claire Shovelton)

However, words did rather get lost in the mix, and it was a shame that the filmed elements did not include the work's text. And sometimes the sheer profusion of ideas seemed to cause confusion, but perhaps the complete sense of anarchic freedom and eclecticism that Berry brought to text, plot and music was part of the work's charm. It certainly has great potential thanks to its sheer uproarious campness and Berry's magpie ear. The performance was much enjoyed by the audience, and I have to admire the guts, hard work and skill of the three live performers in creating such an entertainment out of reduced circumstances, but for me the end result felt more like a conceptual sketch than the finished thing. 

There is a live broadcast of the opera on Tuesday 15 September, full details from the festival website.

Darren Berry: The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow - Caroline Kennedy, Phil Wilcox - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Darren Berry: The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow - Caroline Kennedy, Phil Wilcox - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)

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