Sunday 7 January 2007

Opera Review - The Enchanted Pig

The Young Vic's 2006 Christmas Show was The Enchanted Pig, a musical tale by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. In some ways, a rather daring enterprise as the theatre had re-opened with Dove's community opera Tobias and the Angel. Dove and Middleton do not bill their new piece as an opera, but it is through composed – not spoken dialogue, and half the cast are opera singers.

It is written to be accessible to family audiences. Dove's musical style is essentially tuneful and lyrical but he is not content with just finding a tune, the many melodies in the piece are combined in various ways to produce wonderful ensembles. Whilst the musical style might not be entirely to the taste of the many children that were there when we saw the piece on Friday, it certainly did not put them off and they enjoyed it immensely.

Dove's music is reminiscent of Sondheim, Into the Woods is obviously an influence as regards plot and music. But Dove creates more melodic melodies and modifies the sharpness of Sondheim's music.

The plot concerns the young Princess Flora (Caryl Hughes) and her two sisters (Kate Chapman and Akiya Henry). When their father King Hildebrand (veteran opera singer John Rawnsley) goes to war they disobey his orders and read the book of Fate, played by another veteran opera singer Nuala Willis. What they read must come to pass so the 2 elder sisters marry kings (Joshua Dallas and Delroy Atkinson) and Flora must marry a pig (Byron Watson). When the pig takes her home, Flora warms towards him and this partially breaks the spell that is on him so that at night he turns back into a handsome man. The pig says that Flora must have patience and trust him but she is impatient and with the help of an old lady (Nuala Willis again) she tries to cure the pig. But the old lady is the witch that enslaved the pig and Flora's impatience has meant that he is now fully enslaved and is taken away to marry the old lady's daughter (Kate Chapman).

To win her pig/husband back Flora must travel the world and wear out 3 pairs of iron shoes. This she does, on the way meeting various people who teach her the different meanings of love. First Mr and Mrs North Wind (John Rawnsley and Nuala Willis) hilariously played as gruff Northerners who explain, in an infectiously to-tapping number, that despite their manner they still love each other. Then the Moon (Joshua Dallas) for whom love is mysterious and he never meets the one he loves (presumably the Earth). And finally the Sun and his girlfriend Day (Delroy Anderson, wearing only a pair of sparkly swimming trunks, and Akiya Henry) who are carefree young lovers.

With these people's help she finds her pig/husband and breaks the spell. This part was perhaps the weakest as Flora has 3 days to do it in, before the wedding. And she has 3 gifts (from the North Winds, the Moon and the Sun) to help her. So basically we get the same material 3 times, each repeat shortened and varied, enlivened by the wedding preparations.

By the end of the opera Flora and her husband have learned the virtues of patience and endurance and learned about the many varieties of love. All told within the context of a story which was accessible and enjoyable to both adults and children. A considerable achievement for Dove, Middleton and their hard working cast.

It was lovely to see Rawnsley and Willis again, they both contributed a considerable amount of theatrical experience to the production and also seemed to be having a good time. In fact, the whole cast did.

As can be seen from the above, apart from Caryl Hughes and Byron Watson all the cast played multiple roles and when not playing a role, sang in the chorus. Hughes and Watson coped brilliantly with their long, taxing parts and there wasn't a weak link. No amplification was used, but both actors and opera singers balanced each other very well and conveyed the drama very well. Diction was pretty good and with the help of James Fulljames's imaginative production, I don't think that anyone could have difficulty understanding what was going on.

Dick Bird had designed basic set which used the whole theatre, meaning that the production (including Flora's flying through the air) happened in and around the audience a truly magical thing for everyone, but especially the children.

Dove had imaginatively scored the piece for a 5-piece band accordian (occasionally doubling piano), harp, percussion, trombone, cello and double bass. The results were magical and enchanting and at no point did the musical accompaniment feel undernourished; in fact I was amazed at the ravishing sounds that Dove had conjured. The band was directed from the accordian (now that's a first) by either Ian Watson or Edward Hessian.

This was a magical evening for us and for the many, many children in the audience. It is the sort of piece that more people should be doing, something that is not just children's theatre but enables the whole family to appreciate real, unamplified, sophisticated musical theatre.

The show is only on till the end of January but then it goes on tour.

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