Friday 12 September 2014

The Little Green Swallow

Ed Ballard and Adam Temple-Smith in British Youth Opera's The Little Green Swallow - photo Bill Knight
Ed Ballard, Adam Temple-Smith and the Singing Apples
photo Bill Knight
Jonathan Dove The Little Green Swallow; British Youth Opera, dir: Stuart Barker, cond: Lionel Friend, Southbank Sinfonia; The Peacock Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 11 2014 Imaginative staging of Jonathan Dove's first full length opera

For their September season of opera this year, British Youth Opera has chosen to perform Jonathan Dove's 1994 opera, The Little Green Swallow. With this year's season restricted to one opera (and a programme of public master-classes), Dove's opera was a good choice because it requires a cast of 14 so that total number of young people involved was 28 singers (14 soloists and 14 covers), plus 18 backstage, musical and directorial assistants. The opera was directed by Stuart Barker and conducted by Lionel Friend, with designs by Simon Bejer and lighting by David Howe; Victoria Newlyn was the movement consultant and Darren East the puppetry consultant. The Southbank Sinfonia was in the pit.

Filipa van Eck and Adam Temple-Smith in British Youth Opera's The Little Green Swallow - photo Bill Knight
Filipa van Eck, Adam Temple-Smith and the Little Green Swallow
photo Bill Knight
Dove's opera was written for Musica Nel Chiostro in Batignano and, as such, had to be in Italian. Dove adapted Goldoni's play L'Augellino Belverde himself. The tale is a follow up to the one which supplied Prokofiev with the libretto for The Love of Three Oranges and re-visits many of the same characters some 20 years later. King Tartaglia (Joseph Padfield) has been away at the wars, during which time his mother Tartagliona (Elizabeth Karani), advised by the seer Brighella (Dominick Felix), has buried Tartaglia's wife Ninetta (Emma Kerr) alive in a sewer and thrown the twin children Renzo (Adam Temple-Smith) and Barbarina (Filipa van Eck) into the river. The twins have been adopted by Truffaldino (Ed Ballard), now a sausage vendor, and his wife Smeraldina (Rozanna Madylus). The subsequent plot involves two (possibly three) quests, the first is Renzo and Truffaldino's in search of the Singing Apples (Hazel McBain, Llio Evans and Katie Coventry) and the Dancing Waters and the second is Barbarina and Smeraldina's as they go in search of Renzo and Truffaldino, who have actually gone on a further quest. The whole is complicated by two talking statues Calmon (Matt Buswell) and the Little Green Swallow (Tom Verney).

All ends happily of course, but the problem is that the plot is very diffuse and we have an hour of exposition before Renzo and Truffaldino set off on their first quest at the end of act one. You cannot help feeling that a more experienced librettist would have tightened up the libretto somewhat and given it fewer characters and more focus. But Stuart Barker's production had an admirable clarity and his use of puppetry and other devices was highly imaginative. The Little Green Swallow was a delightful puppet manipulated by the singer, Tom Verney, whilst at the end Tartagliona and Brighella are turned into a tortoise and a donkey to hilarious results. But perhaps the scariest were the singing apples (also manipulated by the singers,Hazel McBain, Llio Evans and Katie Coventry) which took is rather into Little Shop of Horrors territory. There was no set, instead Simon Bejer provided a flexible series of small settings, which conjured just the right atmosphere and meant that the many scene changes were swift.

The singers were all admirable providing us with a wide variety of lively characters. Joseph Padfield was a suitably distraught Tartaglia, required to perk up and woo Barbarina in act two but absent from the action rather too often, his wife Ninetta was beautifully and expressively sung by Emma Kerr. Their two children, required to develop from priggish philosophising to learning about themselves were Adam Temple-Smith and Filipa van Eck. Van Eck was a total delight as her Barbarina developed into a real spoiled brat and clearly Van Eck and the designers had a great deal of fun with the role Temple-Smith had to develop into the romantic hero, and if his voice did not always respond to the pressure put on it, he impressed with his intelligence and musicality.

Rozanna Madylus and Ed Ballard made a characterful pair as the stock comic servant characters, fallen out of love and needing to discover themselves too. Elizabeth Karani made a nicely nasty Queen Mother, with Dominick Felix in fine support as the love-lorn seer. The singing statues were finely incarnated by Eirlys Myfanwy Davies and Matt Buswell. Hazel McBain, Llio Evans and Katie Coventry not only sang the Singing Apples but also acted as assistants throughout the opera. Tom Verney created an entrancing swallow, his mellifluous counter-tenor voice combining very effectively with the puppetry.

But, I have to confess that I also have one major complaint and this is regarding the diction; the opera was sung in Adam Pollack's English translation. The piece is scored for just 12 players but for a lot of the time the instruments covered the voices just enough so that you could not follow the words. This meant that, though the bare bones of the plot were clear, the fine detail was completely lost. The Little Green Swallow is a piece which needs the audience to be able to follow every single word being sung, and we just couldn't. Sometimes we could, but it was very patchy probably due to the density of Dove's scoring rather than the lack of skill on behalf of the singers. But it is a problem that should have been solved.

That said, under Lionel Friend's capable direction the Southbank Sinfonia did sterling work in the pit creating some magical textures from very little. Dove's score plays with the repeated rhythms and textures of minimalism but to his own ends and the results are always very affecting and quite often humorous (one companion described it as John Adams but with jokes). I was actually rather surprised that Dove had not taken the opportunity of the revival to revisit the work and tighten it up. As it stands it is a fascinating precursor to his later operas but will remain restricted to performances like this one, or by colleges (the work's UK premiere was given by the Guildhall School of Music).

The entire cast captured the captivating nature of the piece and were clearly having great fun with the complex details of the staging. Despite my reservations this was a delightful evening in the theatre.

There is one further performance on 13 September 2014, and the cover performance is tonight, 12 September.

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