Friday 6 September 2013

Co-opera Co gala - A Grand Night for Singing

Hackney Empire
Last night (4 September 2013) Co-Opera Co took a break from their performances of The Mikado and Madama Butterfly at the Hackney Empire to present a gala A Grand Night for Singing, filling the theatre with a huge variety of singing in support of Co-Opera Co's Philip Langridge Bursary. Performers included Rosalind Plowright, Richard Suart, Martin Nelson, Harry Nicoll, Toby Stafford-Allen, Melinda Hughes, Llio Evans, Susanne Holmes, Li Li, Owain Brown and Adam Player, with the St John of Jerusalem Festival Chorus and Children's Choir, and dancers from the Lisa Gilbert Academy of Ballet, with the Co-OPera Co. Orchestra directed by Stephen Higgins and by John Andrews.

We started with a lively account of the overture to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Stephen Higgins conducted the orchestra for the whole of the first half, and acted as compere. The first guest was tenor Harry Nicoll who gave a stylish performance of Where e're you walk from Handel's Semele. This was followed by Toby Stafford Allen's highly vivid account Ford's dream from Verdi's Falstaff. All performers sang from memory which heightened the communicativeness and immediacy of all the performances in the evening.

Next came Melinda Hughes who was very touching in Rusalka's Song to the Moon from Dvorak's Rusalka, rather impressively sung in Czech. Hughes was then joined by Toby Stafford Allen for a delightful rendition of the duet La ci darem from Mozart's Don Giovanni.  One of the operas in Co-Opera Co's current season is Madama Butterfly, and the cover for the title role is a young soprano Li Li who sang Un bel di in the gala, giving us a fine taster for the full role.

Next it was a great delight to hear Rosalind Plowright singing Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix. Looking and sounding ravishing, her performance made you wish to hear her singing the role on stage. The final operatic guest was Richard Suart who sang three items. First, a consummate (and very funny) account of the Lord Chancellor's nightmare song from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe. Next, the Noel Coward song Nina in a performance that was both finely judged and wonderfully hilarious. Lastly Sir Joseph Porter's song from Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. As this required a chorus, Suart first of all rehearsed the chorus (we in the audience), adding actions to be performed in each verse. Suart was masterly, and very funny, and we in the audience seemed to acquit ourselves quite creditably too.

The first half concluded with the prayer and dream sequence from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. Co-opera Co performed this last summer and Llio Evans and Susanne Holmes returned to their roles as Gretel and Hansel, and were joined by fifteen young dancers (aged five to 14) from the Lisa Gilbert Academy of Ballet which gives classes in the local area. The dance sequence is intended to re-create Hansel and Gretel's dream and in choreography specially created for the occasion we were treated to an evocative scene danced by children themselves.

The second half opened with a big change of mood. The St John of Jerusalem Festival Choir and Children's Choir, a local community choir based in St John of Jerusalem Church, performed extracts from Alexander L'Estrange's Zimbe,  a lively choral piece with jazz quintet accompaniment, based on African songs. Filling the stage, the choir and children's choir gave a heart-warmingly enthusiastic performance of movements from the work.

A pause while the stage was re-configured, gave Stephen Higgins the chance to explain more about Co-Opera Co. The evening was in support of the bursary named for the late Philip Langridge (himself a great support of Co-Opera Co from its earliest days). The bursary enables the company fully support some of the company's emerging artists for a whole year, paying for them to attend development programmes, workshops, master-classes, have individual coaching sessions and sponsor them for up to 12 performances throughout the year.

Harry Nicoll returned to sing, unaccompanied, one of Robert Burns' touching ballads Ae fond kiss. Then in a complete change of mood, Martin Nelson (who sings the title role in Co-Opera Co's The Mikado) gave us the Mikado's solo, the 'little list', with conductor John Andrews returning to the podium. It was nice to hear it sung with Gilbert's original words, without any updating and I look forward to the complete performance on Saturday. The operetta mood continued as Harry Nicoll and Toby Stafford Allen returned as Offenbach's lively Gendarmes.

Then three young singers from the current Co-Opera Co, Llio Evans, Susanne Holmes and Owain Browne sang the trio Soave il vento from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, a lovely moment of repose.

Another young singer, Adam Player, gave a very funny rendition of another Noel Coward song, Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington. And the cabaret mood continued as Melinda Hughes returned to treat us to one of her cabaret songs from her Edinburgh Festival show, Having heard performing the whole show just before she left for Edinburgh, it was a great treat to hear one again.

Finally, Rosalind Plowright returned. Firstly she sang Ma lyre immortelle from Gounod's Sapho, a lovely piece with a glorious harp part (of course). Secondly the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen in which Plowright made outrageous love to the men of the orchestra and seemed to suggest that she would be a fearsome Carmen.

The evening concluded with a delightful rendition, by the whole company, of a music hall song about wanting to sing in the opera!

Before the performance I attended the fascinating pre-concert talk where David Green, from CultureLab in Newcastle, talked about an academic project that he is involved in, researching into human digital interaction. It doesn't sound a lot like opera, but Green explained that they had been developing two films. One, a film about Co-Opera Co made by professional film makers, the second made by members of Co-Opera Co themselves. This latter was done by encouraging the opera company personnel to take footage on their mobile phones. We were shown to short clips, one from each project, and the results were fascinating with each having its own strengths. The project has not yet finished, but there is clearly the possibility for some very powerful results.

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