Sunday 24 June 2018

Rip-roaring fun: Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up!

Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - WNO Ladies Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - WNO Ladies Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer Rhondda Rips It Up!; Madeleine Shaw, Lesley Garrett, Welsh National Opera, dir: Caroline Clegg, cond: Nicola Rose; WNO at the Hackney Empire Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A vaudeville style celebration of the life and achievments of the Welsh suffragette entertains and uplifts

Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - Madeleine Shaw - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Madeleine Shaw - Welsh National Opera
(Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer's follow-up to her 2016 opera for Welsh National Opera, Figaro gets a divorce couldn't be more different. Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up! is most definitely not an opera, it is an entertaining mix of cabaret, vaudeville and music hall, all celebrating the life of the Welsh suffragette, Margaret Mackworth, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda. Using an all female ensemble (singers, musicians, production team) with music by Elena Langer [read my interview with Elena] and words by Emma Jenkins, Welsh National Opera debuted the work on 7 June 2018 in Newport and is taking it on tour. We caught the performance on 22 June 2018 at the Hackney Empire.

Madeleine Shaw played Lady Rhondda with Lesley Garrett as Emcee and an ensemble of women from the WNO Chorus who played all the other roles (male and female). Nicola Rose conducted the instrumental ensemble, the director was Caroline Clegg and designer was Lara Booth.

Whilst the work is described as a cabaret opera, the references are as much to music hall and vaudeville. Emma Jenkins libretto uses individual numbers linked by dialogue whilst Elena Langer's score combines very definite point numbers, pastiche and musical references with an acute ear for timbre and colour which links everything together. Langer's instrumental ensemble consisted of ten players, piano, violin, cello, double bass/bass guitar, accordion, clarinet/saxophone, trumpet/cornet, trombone, tuba, and drumkit/percussion. With these she achieved a remarkable variety of colours, and influences ranged from the brass bands of South Wales to salon dance music, yet the whole was shot through with Langer's voice and the instrumental underscoring of the dialogue ensured a continuity. Langer's scoring was often spare, her use of strong instrumental colours acute.

Of course writing a cabaret/vaudeville/music hall style piece is no good if you can't write tunes, and Langer clearly can, the piece has quite a number of toe tapping numbers and the final chorus 'We won't surrender till it's done!' was catchy enough to make a superb sing-along piece. Having been treated to a selection of suffgragette songs by the WNO Women's Community Chorus before the piece started, the Community chorus returned during the work to sing in the ensemble numbers including a stirring rendition of Ethel Smyth's March of the Women, which the audience were encouraged to join in.

Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - Lesley Garrett, Madeleine Shaw, WNO Ladies Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Lesley Garrett, Madeleine Shaw, WNO Ladies Chorus
Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
The piece opens with the unveiling of a portrait of Lady Rhondda in the House of Lords in 2011 (she was Lady Rhondda in her own right but was never able to take her seat in the house, women hereditary peers were only able to take their seats in 1963, five years after Lady Rhondda's death). The piece then jumped back to the beginning of the story, taking us forward until the first women were able to vote, though Jenkins' libretto neatly looked a bit further ahead too. |

To link these and provide commentary, there as an MC figure, Lesley Garrett, in sparkling form whose performance included playing both male and female characters, singing narrative patter songs and a very, very saucy music hall song. In fact the whole piece had plenty of saucy jokes which gave a lively cast to the whole, I particularly loved the ensemble where the ladies read Havelock Ellis for the first time and start to discover sex!

Madeleine Shaw was riveting as Lady Rhondda. Shaw was the only singer to play a single role, and she real brought Lady Rhondda to life in a riveting performance which moved from serious issues to comic moments to song and dance. It could have been distracting, but Shaw really made us care for this larger than life figure. Lady Rhondda's life was full of such amazing and unlikely events that the cabaret form of the piece really work (the original concept came from WNO's artistic director David Pountney) and the work rightly became a real celebration.

Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - Lesley Garrett, Madeleine Shaw, WNO Ladies Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - Lesley Garrett, Madeleine Shaw, WNO Ladies Chorus
Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
The ensemble was completed by 18 women from the WNO Chorus, eight of whom (Anitra Blaxhall, Rosie Ha, Catherine Wood, Paula Greenwood, Meriel Andrew, Monika Sawa, Louise Ratcliffe, Carolyn Jackson) played various roles in the piece ranging from Lady Rhondda's mother, Helen Archdale (her first female lover) to Lord Asquith and Churchill. They moved between characters easily, whilst also moving scenery and participating in song and dance numbers, all in all a dazzling performance.

Most importantly, everyone seemed to be having fun, whilst never trivialising the serious issues underlying the work. The fact that all concerned were women seemed to make an even stronger statement, and the lively and enthusiastic audience was made up of a majority of women.

The work is probably best in a rather smaller, intimate venue where the audience has a closer connection to the stage, so despite working really hard the cast could not always quite get the words across and it was noticeable that the passages which counted most were those which were delivered firmly down-stage. This is a work I would like to re-visit in a more intimate cabaret setting.

WNO Women's Community Chorus at Hackney Empire
WNO Women's Community Chorus performing Suffragett anthems at Hackney Empire
Caroline Clegg's production was lively and imaginative, moving between scenes easily and re-creating the sinking of the Lusitania with great panache. In fact it was the panache and enthusiasm which came across, so strongly throughout the performance.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Debut: Soprano Chen Reiss sings her first staged Zerlina for her Covent Garden debut  - interview
  • Powerfully uplifting: Bach's Mass in B minor from the Dunedin Consort (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Brilliant ensemble: Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate from Opera North (★★★★½) - music theatre review
  • ‘A well-regulated church music’ - John Eliot Gardiner at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Humanity & warmth - Solomon's Knot at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican  (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Engaging rarity: Verdi's Un giorno di regno from Heidenheim (★★★★) - CD review
  • Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at The Grange Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Seriously unusual: Stephen Barlow introduces Buxton Festival's production of Verdi's Alzira - interview
  • Second View: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Opera Holland Park conducted by George Jackson (★★★★) - opera review
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