Thursday 9 August 2018

Musical memoir: Tom Smail's Blue Electric at Tête à Tête

Tom Smail: Blue Electric - Mimi Doulton, Jonathan Brown - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Smail: Blue Electric - Mimi Doulton, Jonathan Brown -
Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Smaill Blue Electric; Mimi Doulton, Jonathan Brown, dir Hugh Hudston; Tête à Tête at RADA Studios Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 7 August 2018 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Work in progress: Alba Arikha’s memoir Major/Minor translated into opera

This is the 11th year of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival and this Tuesday, 7 August 2018, was the opportunity to see, what was described as a "work in progress", Blue Electric composed by Tom Smail with words by Alba Arikha

Economically directed by film director Hugh Hudson and atmospherically staged by Laura Albeck and Sara Stanton, the protagonist Alba was sung by Mimi Doulton, Vigo, her father, by Jonathan Brown, with Helen Charlston, Camilla Seale and Jennifer Coleman as Anne, her Mother, Barbara and Noga.

Blue Electric began life as Alba Arikha’s memoir Major/Minor which is a poetic retelling of her teenage years. The haunting book is a coming of age story. The wilful teenage girl in Paris coping with adolescence. The feelings of alienation and bewilderment at the world. The struggles to find her own voice and to shake off the labels already applied to her by the adults. This could be our life but for the fact that her father is the artist Avigdor Arikha and her godfather Samuel Beckett. Re-reading the book in 2017, her husband, Tom Smail realised he could hear “music in the words” and began to explore what more there was to say. So, Blue Electric was born.

Tom Smail: Blue Electric - Helen Charlston, Camilla Seale, Jennifer Coleman, Mimi Doulton - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Helen Charlston, Camilla Seale, Jennifer Coleman,
Mimi Doulton - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Why Blue Electric? The opera doesn’t seem to make that clear. Blue is a recurring colour in the memoir. Maybe it’s the electric blue eyeshadow that Alba secretes as she experiments with her identity? I should have asked – opportunity missed.

After its haunting opening refrain, we were propelled into the emotional violence of a young Alba being mercilessly bullied about her back brace. I didn’t feel the book made such a deal of it but here amongst this musical cruelty she feels like a victim before we’ve even had a chance to shake her hand and say hello. Is this giving musical expression to her father’s dictum “You must be strong you cannot fall”?

Despite moments of poetic beauty, there’s a constant feeling of musical unease and agitation. We hear all too briefly a warmth and sweet voiced lyricism when Alba collaborates with her father in his studio with an exultant “my father trusts me” but this evaporates. Growing up is not always pretty but any joys there might have been remain largely untouched. What of her loves, her talents and inspirations? The pacing of her father’s revelations in the book are lent power by being intertwined with her teenage explorations but here musically her father’s loss of his own adolescence threatens to completely suffocate her own; the echoes of the Holocaust are writ large.

Tom Smail: Blue Electric - Jonathan Brown - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Smail: Blue Electric - Jonathan Brown - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
It seems disingenuous to draw too many conclusions when, after all, this is only a third of the material that is to come, but I hope that some of the love, joy and inspiration I felt when reading the memoir will also weave their spells in this fascinating work.
Reviewed by Anthony Evans

Update: We have had a comment from composer Tom Smail about the version of the opera performed - 'Thank you Anthony and Robert. This short version was designed to set the scene, to lay out the essential relationships in the opera to come: Alba’s awkward teenage self, her overpowering father, their tempestuous relationship, his horrifying past that so affects their present, the gentle, would-be peacemaker mother. In the finished opera, characters and relationships will be fleshed out and there will indeed be a certain amount of ‘love, joy and inspiration’, as you hope.'

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
7 August 2018
RADA Studios
Blue Electric
Alba : Mimi Doulton
Vigo : Jonathan Brown
Anne / Schoolgirl 3 : Helen Charlston
Barbara / Schoolgirl 2 : Camilla Seale
Noga / Schoolgirl 1 : Jennifer Coleman
Music : Tom Smail
Words : Alba Arikha
Director : Hugh Hudson
Designer : Laura Albeck
Associate Designer : Sara Stanton

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • An uneasy mix: politics, spirituality and melody in Keith Burstein's new opera at Grimeborn (★★★) - opera review
  • Jonas Kaufmann as Wagner’s Parsifal at the Munich Opera Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Piecing together the new opera Dear Marie Stopes  - guest post from composer Alex Mills
  • The classical saxophone: Huw Wiggin's Reflections (★★★★★) - CD review
  • New production of Shakespeare's Othello at the Globe Theatre - Theatre review
  • You can’t resist a splendid piece: Donizetti's Rita & Ravel's L'heure Espagnole at Grimeborn Festival - Opera review
  • Gripping psychodrama with a nod to Hitchcock: Barber's Vanessa at Glyndebourne (★★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tiroler Festpiele Erl (Austria) (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Introducing the art of bel canto - the London Bel Canto Festival  - Interview
  • Prom 26: Late night Baroque queens at the Royal Albert Hall  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Into the mind of Bloody Mary: Martin Bussey & Di Sherlock's Mary's Hand (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Home

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