Wednesday 13 April 2022

Beauty and the Seven Beasts: using seven composers and mixing film with live performance, The Opera Story's latest show is a remarkable triumph

Beauty and the Seven Beasts - Dan D'Souza - The Opera Story
Beauty and the Seven Beasts - Dan D'Souza - The Opera Story (Photo Nick Rutter)

Beauty and the Seven Beasts - Vahan Salorian, Jude Obermuller, Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher, Ruth Chan, Sasha Scott, James Garner; Katherine Aitken, Dan D'Souza, director James Hurley, conductor Berrak Dyer; The Opera Story at Brixton Jamm
Reviewed 12 April 2022 (★★★★)

Beauty and the Seven Beasts - Katherine Aitken, Nicholas Lester - The Opera Story (Photo Nick Rutter)
Beauty and the Seven Beasts - Katherine Aitken, Nicholas Lester
The Opera Story (Photo Nick Rutter)

In true style, The Opera Story's latest new work is based on an intriguing mash-up of the tale of Beauty and the Beast, and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Working on the premise of Beauty going on seven dates with seven different 'beasts', each encounter symbolising one of the Seven Deadly Sins, Beauty and the Seven Beasts which is playing at Brixton Jamm (seen 12 April 2022), featured teamwork seven composer librettist teams (one sin each), composers Vahan Salorian, Jude Obermuller, Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher, Ruth Chan, Sasha Scott and James Garner, and texts by Dominic Kimberlin, Tom Powell, Annie Jenkins, JL Williams, Ellie Taylor, Louis Rembges, and Anna Pool. Directed by James Hurley and conducted by Berrak Dyer, the show featured Katherine Aitken as Beauty and Dan D'Souza as Beast, with filmed contributions from Sarah Tynan, Nicholas Lester, Chiara Vinci, Henry Waddington, Anthony Gregory, Edmund Danon, Rachael Lloyd, and Joshua Owen Mills.

Composer Vahan Salorian and librettist Dominic Kimberlin were the lead team, composing both the final encounter Pride, the introduction, epilogue and the linking scenes as well as giving a steer for the remaining encounters. The premise for the piece was the Beauty (Katherine Aitken) signs up to an app that promises true love in seven dates, results guaranteed. And so, via a series of magic mirrors she has a series of encounters, guided by an unseen (to her)  matchmaker, Beast (Dan D'Souza) who we gradually learn is a former client of the company who failed to find true love and part of the contract is that if you fail, you get cursed, turned into a toad and have to work for the company.

The compartmentalised nature of the story lent itself to the teamwork idea, and each team took a rather neat spin on how the particular sin was embodied in the encounter, so that there was much humour on the way and quite a few scary bits. What James Hurley and video designer Cheng Keng (with sound editing/mixing from Myles Eastwood / Eastwood Records) achieved was that sense, when encountering someone via a phone or video conferencing, of seeing only what they want us to see, and in almost all the encounters it took some time to discover quite how seriously weird the person was, and rather neatly, a couple of the encounters turned this on its head. Rather remarkably, this compartmentalised structure built into something coherent and engaging, touching and comic, with a real moral.

The drawback, inevitably, was that the singers playing the seven 'sins' were all filmed, as was Sarah Tynan who delivered the company's jingle. The instrumental ensemble of nine was also pre-recorded, so that conductor Berrak Dyer was in the room to coordinate between live and recorded. The result was technically complex and impressively achieved.

Beauty and the Seven Beasts - Chiara Vinci, Katherine Aitken - The Opera Story (Photo Nick Rutter)
Beauty and the Seven Beasts - Chiara Vinci, Katherine Aitken
The Opera Story (Photo Nick Rutter)

It worked because of a wonderfully emotionally engaged performance from Katherine Aitken as Beauty. On stage all the time, it was her singing, acting and responding that gripped us and took us through her roller-coaster of emotions. That the sung duets with the filmed sins worked was because Aitken drew us in with her responsive performance.

Dan D'Souza was similarly impressive as Beast, though his role was far slower burn and only at the end was he given a chance to really open up. The opera dipped the final cathartic duet, the happy end was implied but not presented. This meant that we never really got closure; though the writers might have thought it smart to end thus, I thought it unfair on singers and audience alike to avoid the satisfying catharsis at the end.

Having a range of composers meant that each brought a different tint to their particular sin, though all wrote in a broadly tonal range, and Vahan Salorian's themes (the advertising jingle, themes for Beauty and Beast) were available to be used. The result could have been a stylistic disaster, but in fact it came out as coherent and well thought through with nothing jarring. A credit to all the planning involved. 

I confess that I found the sound-quality of the instrumental contribution slightly muddy and throughout, the ear tended to focus on the singers, particularly the live ones, so that details of orchestration became somewhat secondary. I simply missed the live musicians.

The individual filmed contributions were uniformly terrific, and it was lovely seeing and hearing some well-known faces having some great fun. Sarah Tynan was wonderfully demure, singing the demented jingle, Nicholas Lester was scarily sexy in Gluttony, Chiara Vinci was ultimately rather touching in Envy, Henry Waddington was a complete delight in Sloth, Anthony Gregory managed radiate charm and sex-appeal whilst sounding angelic in Lust, Edmund Danon was truly scary in Greed, Rachael Lloyd really kept us guessing in Wrath whilst Joshua Owen Mills was a hoot in Pride.

At a time when simply assembling a cast on first-night has become something of a challenge, you can understand why The Opera Story opted for the mixed film/live format for this show, and James Hurley and his team made it work enormously well and did things that would not be possible with a live show.  Creating an event that was consistently entertaining and thought-provoking. 

But there is much more in this piece, and I do hope that we get to hear a live version of it as I feel that a performance with live singers and musicians, perhaps using live video, would be even stronger. Having the musicians and singers in the room makes a real difference.

Beauty and the Seven Beasts - Dan D'Souza - The Opera Story (Photo Nick Rutter)
Beauty and the Seven Beasts - Dan D'Souza - The Opera Story (Photo Nick Rutter)

A great deal of kudos must go to Katherine Aitken, not just for learning a long role in a new opera, but making each filmed encounter seem real and vital. Aitken managed to bring a sense of spontaneity to the whole thing, and a feeling of joy in the sheer performance. She was finely complemented by Dan D'Souza as a very touching Beast. Conductor Berrak Dyer managed to bring intelligence and sensitivity into her role as glorified traffic policemen. The technical team also deserve a huge round of applause, the complexities of this show were immense and I imagine that doing it as Brixton Jamm (a former pub turned music venue) was a challenge. It hardly showed, and the evening flowed brilliantly. 

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