Thursday 22 May 2014

Hogarth’s Stages: new opera by students at the Royal College of Music

he Painter and His Pug by William Hogarth
he Painter and His Pug by William Hogarth
Last night (Saturday 17 May 2014) students from the Royal College of Music in association with Tête à Tête Opera put on an opera showcasing their composition and performance talents. 250 years after William Hogarth's (1697-1764) death, old met new on the stage of the Britten Theatre providing five short (fifteen minute) operas - each based on one of Hogarth's moralistic paintings.

The students were helped along by Tête à Tête's Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones, and assisted by Tête à Tête's designer Sarah Booth. The orchestra was conducted by Tim Murray, an alumnus of RCM and former Music Director of Tête à Tête, who has squeezed this in between conducting at the Royal Opera House and for the Bolshoi Ballet.

A common thread through the operas was provided by continuity of staging and costuming. Although each opera had its own scenery, the stage was literally framed, so that it appeared that the performers were within a painting, and people wore their costume throughout whether it was period 18th century, modern, or futuristic. This also further developed the idea of time being irrelevant to the human condition and that these paintings still hold lessons in the 21st century which each opera explored in its own way.

‘On false perspective’: Nick Pritchard and Rebecca Harwick. Photo credit: Fiona Clarke
‘On false perspective’: Nick Pritchard and Rebecca Harwick.
Photo credit: Fiona Clarke
Hogarth made the engraving 'On false perspective' as the frontispiece for his friend John Joshua Kirby's pamphlet on linear perspective: 'Dr. Brook Taylor's Method of Perspective made Easy both in Theory and Practice'. In it a number of 'errors' can be seen: such as a bird being bigger than the tree it perches on, a man on a hill lighting his pipe from a candle of a woman in a upstairs window, and sheep getting bigger the further away they are.

In this opera, music by Josephine Stephenson, and a thought provoking libretto by Benjamin Osborne, the scene was set by Jerome Knox singing lines from the pamphlet. Rebecca Harwick was a philosophical girl fresh from an all-night party, singing about falling through gaps; Nick Pritchard, a magic trick performing barrister; while Katie Coventry, with her memories of the future, and Keith Pun, a mathematician, sang about ways to explain love.

'The bet' by Algirdas Kraunaitis, based on 'The marriage Settlement', was a discourse on the nature of humans – whether they are essentially good or bad. In it one man bets another that he can make strangers fight in the street – which he proceeds to do by offering money to the one who can come up with the best reason for deserving it. The male voices were sung by Daniel Farrimond, Julien van Mellaerts, and Matthew Buswell, the female voices by Mélisande Froidure-Lavoine and Cait Frizzell (in a poorly made fat suit).The best way to describe the first two operas would be somewhere between Hans Werner Henze and Julian Anderson, with speech-like singing and a musical score which does it own thing without being obtrusive. But with music like this there is no doubling to support the singers and no hiding for the musicians, and relies on their more than capable musicianship.

The third opera 'Now', music composed by Lewis Murphy, words by Laura Attridge, took as its starting point 'Southwark Fair' rethought as an Orwellian dystopia. It began with the performers at waving torches by the edges of the audience. But gradually their thoughts of love and loss were brought out on stage as social repression dissolved into civil unrest.

'Now' was more melodic than the first two operas, although still completely modern in character. Consequently the characters had greater emotional freedom.

‘Hogarth’s bastards’: Gemma Summerfield, Craig Jackson, Tai Oney, Rannveig Káradóttir, and Simon Grange. Photo credit: Fiona Clarke
‘Hogarth’s bastards’: Gemma Summerfield, Craig Jackson,
Tai Oney, Rannveig Káradóttir, and Simon Grange.
Photo credit: Fiona Clarke
Opera no. 4 Hunter Coblentz and Jordan O'Connor's 'Hogarth's Bastards' - a reworking of 'Four stages of cruelty', took this emotional freedom to a new level. The libretto was cruel, crude, and bitingly funny, and the performers Gemma Summerfield, Craig Jackson, Tai Oney, Rannveig Káradóttir, and Simon Grange sang it with aplomb.

In this opera the dysfunctional cast of Don Giovanni ('Mozart sure gets around') were getting ready for yet another performance and amused themselves by venting spleen at each other and their lack of talent or musical knowledge (no one seems to know which country Chopin is from!) as they are getting ready. The image of a lady resplendent in costume arriving on a Boris bike summed up the ethos of the whole production.

While the orchestration alone would not have been something to sit and listen to it was very sympathetic to the singers and as a whole, if I had to choose, this was definitely my favourite.

The final opera of the evening was Edwin Hillier and Ned Allen's surreal 'Serpentine or The Analysis of Beauty' was the most musically challenging – encompassing elements of music throughout the ages. The singers, especially the men (Nicholas Morton, Peter Aisher, and Mark Nathan) sang using renaissance and baroque techniques such as trillo, albeit slowed down to match the slow-mo dancing of the chorus, while the orchestra used extended techniques such as wind tones.

The ladies Cait Frizzell (without the fat suit) and Rachel Bowden were the wibbly foil of Ida (Elizabeth Homes) a non-conformist looking for love who was expelled from the Serpentine night club for refusing to be curvy.

The list of students who have left the Royal College of Music to become famous opera singers and composers is very long and includes Dame Joan Sutherland, Andrew Kennedy, Sarah Connolly, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. So keep an eye out for the names here. This could be the start of an illustrious career.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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