Thursday 8 August 2019

Tête à Tête: dance, Chinese folk tales, and the Apollo Mission to the moon

Huan Li: The Bridge of Magpies - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Huan Li: The Bridge of Magpies - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Huan Li The Bridge of Magpies, Edward Lambert Apollo's Mission; Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival at The Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 August 2019
Dance, Chinese art song, satire and moon landings in another pair of new works from Tête à Tête

For our second visit to Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival at The Place we caught two more operas, The Bridge of Magpies by Huan Li and Apollo's Mission by Edward Lambert. The Bridge of Magpies told a traditional Chinese story using Chinese art song woven together with music by composer Huan Li with contributions on Chinese instruments, Pipa and Gugin, from Cheng Yu. The work was choreographed by Julia Cheng and directed by Sarah Hutchinson with Phoebe Haines (soprano), Jacob Bettinelli (baritone) and dancers Ellen Finlay and Jeremiah Olusola. Apollo's Mission had words by Norman Welch and music by Edward Lambert, in a production directed by Korina Kokkali with singers Helen Bailey, Sofia Livotov, Natasha Agarwal, Daniel Joy, Dominic Bowe, and Samuel Lom, plus dancers Marilena Sitaropoulou and Becky Stenning, accompanied by Susan Holmes (piano), Catriona Scott (clarinet) and Luke Wyeth (percussion), conducted by Michael Papadopoulos.

The Bridge of Magpies is very much a cross-art and cross cultural collaboration, using song, instrumental music, dance and projections to tell its story with artists with both Chinese and British roots. The piece tells a traditional story in which the love of a pair of lovers is forbidden and they are banished to either side of a river, once a year a flock of magpies forms a bridge to re-unite the lovers. The story was effectively told in a mixture of dance and song, with the two lovers played by both singers, Pheobe Haines and Jacob Bettinelli, and dancers, Ellen Finlay and Jeremiah Olusola, with Finlay and Olusola plus dancer Wing Leung playing multiple other roles. The song element was made up of classic Chinese art song (sung in Chinese, I presume Mandarin but we were never told), but dance played a very important role and Julia Cheng's expressive choreography was an important feature of the production. Composer Huan Li, who also played the piano, provided music which linked both West and East with contributions on the pipa and the gugin from Cheng Yu.

Edward Lambert: Apollo's Mission - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Edward Lambert: Apollo's Mission - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)

The result was charming and highly effective, a lovely tale well told. Though it was never quite clear for what reason the lovers were kept apart, and this scene was relatively short. I felt that, perhaps, a little more grit and anger at this point might provide a nice balance to the work's charm. There is great potential for developing this fascinating cross-cultural collaboration, but I think it would be useful to present the audience with more information about what they are hearing, translations of the sung Chinese, and perhaps more information about the music that we are hearing. What I took away from this was the sheer power and effectiveness of telling a story through movement, and it was Julia Cheng's choreography that moved me the most.

Huang Li: The Bridge of Magpies - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Huang Li: The Bridge of Magpies - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
After the interval there was a complete mood change as composer Edward Lambert and librettist Norman Wood celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings in a work which merged the serious and the satirical. The piece took the scientific (the depiction of the mission of the astronauts landing on the moon) and interwove it with the metaphorical (the moon depicted as the goddess Selena, here a nightclub singer adored by her fans). At the key moment of the landing, the two collide and Selena is violated. She calls on her brother, the god Apollo, who appears at the moment Buzz Aldrin celebrates communion on the moon (something that did happen). Apollo is an idiot - here a Trump-alike in a golden wig.

The result was appealing and intriguing, presented in a fast paced manner with the scenes overlapping and inter-cutting, and the hard-working cast of six singers and two dancers playing multiple roles. Lambert's music moved between the popular and the more serious, and at times the piece took quite a serious approach to a satirical subject. The problem for me was that, despite the hard work of the cast, many of Norman Welch's words did not come over and you kept wishing for surtitles (never a good thought in an English comic opera), and the thought occurred to me that the libretto might be simply too busy and to detailed to be set in such a way. If you have a complex ensemble where it is clear that the words will not be heard, then perhaps it needs setting up in a way which means that the words matter less.

Natasha Agarwal made an appealing Selena, bringing a real sense of character to the role,  though Dominic Bowe struggled to make Apollo much more than an idiotic caricature. All three men, Daniel Joy, Dominic Bowe and Samuel Lom played the astronauts though Joy's Neil Armstrong and Lom's Buzz Aldrin were the focus of the landing.

Edward Lambert: Apollo's Mission - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Edward Lambert: Apollo's Mission - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
These was a terrific ensemble show, and certainly made you think. There was an element of puzzlement too, but the sheer pell-mell nature of the piece and its deliberate car crash of competing facts and fantasies was rather appealing.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Tête à Tête: Yolande Snaith, Roswitha Gerlitz & Kris Apple's Of Body and Ghost, and Alastair White's ROBE - opera review
  • Bewitched, bothered and bewildered: Mozart's The Magic Flute broadcast from Glyndebourne (★★★) - opera review
  • More than just a stepping stone: Marschner's Hans Heiling in fine new recording from Essen  - (★★★) CD review
  • Prom 18: early Britten and late Mahler from Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra - (★★★)  concert review
  • A significant achievement: Wagner's Das Rheingold in an intimate production at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★Opera review
  • Kynance Cove, On the South Downs: Truro Cathedral Choir & BBC Concert Orchestra in Dobrinka Tabakova (★★★½) - CD review
  • Second View: Prokofiev’s War and Peace - a work ranging from the intensity of personal emotion to the grit of national determination - was also grand and intimate at the same time (★★★ opera review
  • The Romantic Violin Concerto: Linus Roth in Lassen, Scharwenka, Langgaard (★★★½) - CD review
  • Shards of sound: Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Étoiles at the Proms  concert review
  • Sheer enjoyment: Rossini's La Cenerentola at West Green House (★★★opera review
  • The power of culture has not lessened in its ability to forge a better relationship: Jan Latham Koenig on founding the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra  interview
  • A welcome chance to hear Cilea's other opera: a warmly musical account of L'Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park  (★★★Opera review
  • Mio caro Händel: a very personal project from soprano Simone Kermes on Sony Classical (★★★) - cd review
  • Prom 4: Adams, Samuel Barber, Holst from Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits and Nemanja Radulovic  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Home

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