Monday 11 August 2014

Contrasting pair - two amusing operas at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival

Alistair Shelton-Smith, Christopher Diffey and Mark Beesley in Edward Lambert's The Catfish Conundrum at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival - photo Claire Shovelton
Alistair Shelton-Smith, Christopher Diffey and Mark Beesley
in Edward Lambert's The Catfish Conundrum
photo Claire Shovelton
Our visit to Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival at King's Place on Sunday 11 August 2014 started as soon as we entered the atrium; our tea and cake was accompanied by the fascinatingly disembodied sounds of one of the pop up operas being performed in the concert hall foyer two floors below. One of the wonderful things about a visit to Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival is that it is an immersive experience, new opera surrounds you from start to finish. 

Leo Geyer's Sideshows at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival - photo Alice Potter
cast of Leo Geyer's Sideshows
photo Alice Potter
Both concert halls at King's Place were playing throughout the afternoon, different operas performed by different groups, so that choices had to be made. We heard Leo Geyer's Sideshows performed by the Constella Ballet and Orchestra conducted by composer Leo Geyer, and Edward Lambert's Catfish Conundrum, performed by the Music Troupe conducted by composer Edward Lambert. In between there was Catlin Rowley's Breadcrumbs, performed in the foyer.

We saw Leo Geyer's opera The Mermaid of Zennor at the 2012 festival (see my review) so I was curious to see this new work; Geyer has just finished the Joint Course at Manchester University and Royal Northern College of Music. Sideshows started out life as a pair of songs, and has been expanded into a theatrical song cycle. It is written for instrumental ensemble with one singer and two dancers. The text is by Martin Kratz, and the show was directed by Joel Fisher, with choreography by Alfred Taylor-Gaunt and costumes by Sebastian Freeburn. As we entered the auditorium for Sideshows we were treated to mood-setting music played off-stage by the instrumental ensemble.

First on stage was the Ringmaster; Geyer himself, who conducted the instrumental ensemble. He introduced each of the clowns - the instrumentalists, Sara Hall (clarinet), Philip Sharp (piano), Tim Rathbone (violin), Michael Newman (cello). After a lively instrumental ensemble there followed the acts. The Palm Reader (soprano Rachel Maby), the Dancing Bear (Rachel Maby with dancer Ash Longshaw), the Snake Charmer (clarinettist Sara Hall with dancer Paris Fiztpatrick), the Bearded Lady and her daughter (Longshaw and Maby) and finally the Fire-eater (Maby). The clownish instrumentalists were fully part of the action, doing far more than playing; each communicating character by playing (Hall was particularly good at this).  And when the snake escaped under the stage, everyone got involved to hilarious effect.

Dancing Bear costume from Leo Geyer's Sideshows at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival
The wonderful Bear costume used
in Sidewhows
Geyer's music combined highly rhythmic elements, taken from jazz and popular music, with jazz inspired harmonies and extra layers of complexity to create an instrumental texture that was fascinating but complex, whilst still evoking the Circus milieu of the setting. There were no tunes as such, simply small melodic fragments, but the writing was so highly characterised and linked to the wonderful action that you felt the show would work well for anyone not familiar with opera. Rachel Maby was wonderful in the various roles allotted her, chameleon-like in the way she changed characters. Taylor-Gaunt's choreography was highly imaginative in creating the different characters, such as the Bear (in a fabulous costume) and the Snake.

All the performers were brilliant, and you felt that this was a real ensemble piece, with Geyer's music being performed with deceptive ease whilst clowning around. All in all this is what modern opera should be, complex yet approachable, highly characterised and brilliantly realised.

Catlin Rowley's Breadcrumbs was performed in the concert hall foyer by just two performers, Charlotte Richardson sang Gretel with Clemmie Curd playing the cor anglais (director Omar Shahryar). The work is a long dramatic monologue for Gretel (from Hansel and Gretel) as she is lost in the wood and dreaming of food (and cake!). In the rather echoing foyer space it was rather difficult to pick up the words, but the general drift and rather striking dramatic take on the familiar tale became obvious.

Jill Barlow reviewed Edward Lambert's Six Characters in Search of a Stage on this blog, and I was curious to hear some of Lambert's work. The Catfish Conundrum, in which Edward Lambert wrote both words and music was directed and designed by David Edwards and produced by the Music Troupe. The work is written for five singers and two instrumentalists: the Catfish (Donna Lennard), Lord Goodman (Mark Beesley), Spike Milligan (Christopher Diffey), Newton Harrison (Alistair Shelton-Smith), Ronald Reagan (Joanna Gamble) with violinist Eloisa-Fleur Thom and cellist Max Ruisi, conducted by Edward Lambert.

The work concerns the strange event in 1971 when the Arts Council paid for the artist Newton Harrison to bring from the USA his concept piece Portable Fish Farm, which was to demonstrate and celebrate sustainable food sources notably the Catfish farming from the Missisippi Delta. The piece involved catfishes being electrocuted and then prepared for eating, in public. There was an outcry, Lord Goodman as chairman of the Arts Council got involved and Spike Milligan protested, including breaking the windows in the Hayward Gallery at the exhibition opening.

Max Beesley and Donna Lennard in Edward Lambert's The Catfish Conundrum at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival - photo Claire Shovelton
Max Beesley and Donna Lennard
in Edward Lambert's The Catfish Conundrum
photo Claire Shovelton
The work was presented on a bare stage with just a paddling pool, for the catfish, and chairs. Above was a screen on which was presented images (of catfish, of the original exhibition) and explanatory and informative texts. The work opened with the catfish (Donna Lennard) singing about its existence in the wild. Then the dramatic narrative took off with the artists Newton Harrison (Alistair Shelton-Smith), Lord Goodman (Mark Beesley) and Spike Milligan(Christopher Diffey) making contributions with the text coming from original reportage. Narrative sections were sung as a close harmony trio by Shelton-Smith, Beesley and Diffey. When they were singing in character, each held up a board with a photograph of the real person's face! As the catfish prepared for death she sang the sanctus and the pater noster, adding an extra layer to the proceedings.

After the protests, Lord Goodman contemplated what to do (a scene where Beesley sexily smooched with Lennard), before deciding the catfish should be executed in private. The execution (done electric chair style) was not the end. There was the catfish feast and then finally Ronald Reagan (Joanna Gamble, in a large pink dress and wings), proclaimed National Catfish Day.

The result was a rather quirky and entertaining piece which had a very real point to make. Lambert's music is tonal but complex, there are tunes but the music never talked down to you. His vocal lines sounded interesting but singable. There was something of process music about his instrumental writing, he liked setting up figures and letting them run, but he managed to get some remarkably fascinating and complex textures from his quite minimal forces.

Performances were admirable, and all the singers had great charm and stage presence, bringing off their various roles and creating a quirkily entertaining ensemble, but one with a point.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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