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Tag Archive | "Opera"

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Feature: Skitterbang Island – a cross between The Tempest and Wall-E…

Posted on 22 April 2014 by Katie Smith

skitterbang-header
“Really emotional and quite magical,” says Director Peter Glanville about Skitterbang Island, an opera for very young children, collaboratively put together by Polka Theatre and the Little Angel Theatre. “I know ‘magical’ is a world that’s overused – but in a sense you really are taken into this other world, this other island.” When one of the actors in the production, Lowri James, starts to animate the puppet of Skitterbang, the word “magical” does not seem far off the mark. Complete with long ears, fluttering wings, and a movable brow that allows for changes in expression, Skitterbang seems enchanting and real simply moving around on a table.

Aimed at children aged 3-6, Skitterbang Island returns to play at both theatres following a short run in 2010. “It kind of combines The Tempest with Wall-E,” Glanville remarks, referring to the opera’s plot. Completely sung-through, it follows a young girl, Marie, shipwrecked and separated from her uncle, as she finds friendship and companionship in the strange island inhabitant Skitterbang, only to run into further conflict when her uncle eventually finds her. It features an enviable creative team: Glanville, Polka’s Artistic Director, is directing the piece, with a score by Martin Ward (composer for the Olivier-award winning production of The Wind in the Willows) and libretto by acclaimed playwright Phil Porter.

Though the idea of an opera for young children may at first seem strange, Natalie Raybould, who puppeteers and sings the part of Marie, describes how Ward and Porter “knew how to balance serious and silly” in creating Skitterbang Island, which features the usual trademarks of an opera. “We wanted it to have all the complexities of an opera, we didn’t want to compromise,” Glanville agrees. “So it’s sung through, it’s got arias, it’s got duets, it’s got trios, it’s got all the things you would expect from an opera.” Raybould further asserts the authenticity of the piece. “There’s no ‘writing for kids’ music in this,” she says, “it’s exactly like their music for adults. And it’s just as fun, just as emotional.”

The production combines the specialities of both theatres – the puppetry expertise of the Little Angel, where Glanville was Artistic Director until November, and Polka’s specialism of creating children’s theatre. With the Polka also collaborating on future projects with Royal & Derngate as well as the Royal Opera, Glanville suggests this sort of collaboration is partially a “sign of the times” in terms of funding cuts, but mainly that there is great artistic benefit to be gained from two theatres working together. He suggests that in Skitterbang Island, opera and puppetry go hand in hand for children because “with opera, you’re singing with these kind of arcs and shapes that are non-naturalistic, and of course what we’re looking for in puppetry is the one gesture that can extend and carry through the sentence, and allow the audience to then imagine that character coming to life.” Raybould demonstrates this when she takes me to “meet” Marie. Referring to the puppet by name, and showing how simple changes in the puppet’s position can imply a range of emotions, it becomes clear how easily Sue Dacre’s puppets can appear lifelike.

It is the music, however, that helps the most to bring the characters to life. “Music gets you in the gut,” Raybould says. “Even when you know the story and you know what you’re going to sing. It still gets you. It still takes you by surprise. The whole place reacts to the music.” Raybould created her own show, Lullaby, for babies, using a combination of music, light and shadow to explore the relationship between baby and parent or carer. She strongly believes in young children experiencing music, and notes how when Skitterbang accepts the apology of Marie’s uncle, “that’s like at the end of The Marriage of Figaro, when the Count forgives the Countess. And the music tells the story even more than the words do.” Skitterbang Island, owing a great deal to the music, also manages to explore wider themes of trust and forgiveness. Raybould notes the importance of having the adult character in the opera admit to being wrong, “which is a serious issue in itself.”

“Children really should have work exploring the human experience in the same way that we would expect that as adults,” Glanville agrees. This is something that Skitterbang Island achieves, and looks to be something we will see more of during Glanville’s tenure as Polka’s Artistic Director. He is currently looking into an immersive project that explores the possibilities and uses of the whole building, a piece developed from material created by children themselves, and the possibility of more extensive touring, but is also “thinking a lot about professional development,” and is “looking to set up a more cohesive programme that allows artists that want to create work for children and young people to come together and explore ideas through a kind of initial scratch phase, so actually we’re supporting people potentially over a process of two or three years, in terms of taking an idea through to realisation.”

This development seems to be something present in Skitterbang Island as well. The production has had a rehearsal period in which to rethink and remember the piece, as it has not been performed since 2010. All three performers were in the original production, and Raybould notes that “it’s a luxury to be able to rethink it like this, rather than hurry back in.” Although there could have been the possibility of simply attempting to slot everything back in quickly, “happily Polka and Little Angel don’t think like that, and it’s lovely to be able to take the time.” Glanville acknowledges that the audience will find the production, in parts, “really soothing; at other points it’s going be engaging, and it takes them to a lot of different places emotionally. But I think it’s unique.” The emotion he describes speaks through the music and puppetry – and although developing and changing, Skitterbang Island seems as magical as ever.

Skitterbang Island is at the Little Angel Theatre from 26 April to 15 June, and at the Polka Theatre from 25 June to 16 August. More information and tickets form the Polka’s website and the Little Angel’s website.

Katie Smith

Katie Smith

Katie is a student and occasional playwright and theatre director. When not frantically fitting in as much theatre as time will allow, she can often be found complaining, reading or drinking copious amounts of tea

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Review: Faust, Royal Opera House

Posted on 06 April 2014 by Rebecca Latham

Faust

David McVicar’s production of Gounod’s Faust, set in 1870s Paris, is back at the Royal Opera House and brings with it some fresh as well as familiar talent.

The main stage is a luxurious haven away from the frenzied madness of Covent Garden and offers the perfect space to escape into the epic story of Faust and Marguerite. McVicar’s production is bountiful and makes optimum use of its allotted three-and-a-half hour running time. It is not often that a performance of that length can maintain the interest of its audience, but Faust manages to remain captivating for its entirety; perhaps this is why this particular opera has always remained in vogue. With a vast array of impressive set changes that utilise the gigantic space, as well as illustrious costumes and devastating dramatic moments, Faust is a thoroughly engaging production.

The movement in the first act is perhaps a tad clunky. Happily, this is more than rectified after the intermission by the powerful ballet, choreographed by Michael Keegan Dolan, that encapsulates the hellish environment in which Faust (Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja) now finds himself a prisoner. Satan’s playground is bustling with eerie and disturbing sequences that are both unsettling and entertaining. Welsh bass-baritone and Billy Connolly doppelgänger Bryn Terfel is no stranger to Mephistopheles, having played the satanic figure in 2004. He has gravitas in his performance and commands the stage with an electric presence that fluctuates between sinister and frequent comical turns. He meets his match in the fifth act, in the form of a Christian figurehead in black tie adorned with fluffy white feathers – Marguerite’s redemption is slightly undercut by the ridiculous figure of Christ.

The role of Marguerite is played by Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva and Greek soprano Alexia Voulgardiou on alternate nights: for both it is their first time singing as the character. Yoncheva delighted the audience on this particular night, who in return showered her in vocal praise at the show’s end. For them, it was she who stole the show. Marguerite’s descent from pure, virginal heroine to ruined woman is a familiar tale that remains heart-wrenching in this latest illustration, and Valentin’s rejection of his pregnant sister upon his return from war is the emotional climax of the show.

A special mention must be made of conductor Maurizio Benini, who works ferociously from the orchestra pit to give fevered leadership that injects vitality into the entire production. For much of the show I found my eyes wandering to his frenetic movements that are equally as impressive as the action on stage.

The Royal Opera House offers a space that can transport its audience far away from the chaotic bustle of the shopping capital of London. David McVicar’s Faust extends this pledge further by offering the audience a magnificent tale brimming with vigour. Aside from a few odd choices, this production is a worthy testament to the endurance of Faust.

Faust is playing at The Royal Opera House until 25 April. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website.

Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

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Review: Through His Teeth, Linbury Studio Theatre

Posted on 05 April 2014 by Laura Peatman

Through His TeethAs Gounod’s Faust arrives on the Royal Opera House’s main stage, the Linbury Studio Theatre hosts two world premières inspired by the classic tale. The first of these is Through His Teeth, a new work created in a collaboration between composer Luke Bedford and playwright David Harrower.

In Bedford and Harrower’s take on the Faust story, our heroine – ‘A’ – doesn’t quite sell her soul, but sacrifices her family, her freedom, and almost her entire sense of self as she is seduced into a web of deceit by that twenty-first century equivalent of the devil – a conman. The result is an enjoyable and interesting piece, but one that could do with delving more deeply into its own subject matter.

The plot development feels a little rushed, as the action rapidly progresses from first meeting, to full-blown relationship, to being on the run from enemies of MI5. This is in part down to the structure of the work, which highlights vignettes and snippets of the relationship to pinpoint certain conversations and emotions and is itself not a bad form to adopt. Yet the wild entanglement of duplicity and enticement deserves more time to reflect upon and understand: what makes an apparently rational, intelligent woman believe so easily that this car salesman is really an MI5 agent? Put like that, it sounds ridiculous – yet it is based on true events and almost leads to her destruction. Giving this closer attention would more deftly and powerfully highlight the Faustian inspiration.

Having said that, there’s plenty to praise here. Indeed, vocally there is very little to fault: Anna Devin’s soprano soars, and she has a keen sense of when to linger, and when to really go for it. As the enigmatic Robert, Owen Gilhooly has a solid grasp on his character’s rapidly-shifting moods and reflects them adeptly in his strong performance, while the trio is confidently completed by Victoria Simmonds. The only niggle is occasionally diction, as at several times throughout the hour I was glad of the surtitles – something I shouldn’t have to say for an opera in English. The vibrant accompaniment of contemporary chamber orchestra CHROMA is a key element of the success in this production, fulfilling the intensity and the surprising lightnesses of the score and pushing the cast on to greater emotional heights.

The risk of any clunkiness in the modern libretto is, to Bedford’s great credit, turned around for comic effect as the clichéd patter and flirtatious banter of car salesman Robert raises laughs in this operatic context. The frank discussion of the central couple’s sex life is a little uncomfortable in its abruptness, and perhaps over-simplifies the ‘seduction’ element of this deceit, yet it does allow for some chilling power games. Particularly effective are the argument scenes between Devin and Simmonds, as the layering of the two parts builds climactically, as A’s life spirals out of control and away from her family. CCTV screens of previous scenes, current scenes and apparent news reports act as a chilling backdrop to the flashback documentary-style work.

It would have been tempting to wrap up this hour-long piece as a neat moral package, with everyone having learned their lesson and, in the Faustian sense, with the devil conquered. The decision to in fact end on an unanswered question gives greater strength to the whole trajectory of the work: has this experience really changed ‘A’? Would she go through it all again? And more to the point, will she – will the ‘devil’ yet triumph?

Overall, this is a slick and entertaining new work that deserves more fleshing out and less haste if it is going to achieve all its aims.

Through His Teeth is playing at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre until 11 April. For tickets and more information, visit the Royal Opera House website

Laura Peatman

Laura Peatman

Laura is an English graduate, tea drinker and blogger. After spending three years studying and reviewing theatre at Cambridge University, she now runs marketing for an HE dance college and spends as much time as humanly possible at the theatre.

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Review: L’Ormindo, Wanamaker Playhouse

Posted on 28 March 2014 by Amelia Forsbrook

Is it okay to elope with another man’s wife, if that other man turns out to be your father? Would you forgive a lover who only stopped his unfaithful ways after you convinced him you were a ghost? Could you trust a fortune-teller to lead you through your life?

It’s probably best not to think too hard about the little moral and logical pickles our characters confront throughout L’Ormindo as the opera presents a tangle of unconvincing associates and lovers. The unlikely tale begins as Princes Ormindo (Samuel Boden) and Amidas (Ed Lyon) travel across northern Africa to offer their support to the elderly King Ariadenus (Graeme Broadbent). When matching photos of an ‘unmatched beauty’ are revealed by the young men, our princes position themselves as love rivals – and our King discovers that the affections of his spirited young wife, Queen Erisbe (Susanna Hurrell), are somewhat scattered.

Fortunately, this sharp and imaginative collaboration between Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Globe leaves only its characters in a muddle. Using a comically flawed narrative and a rich, dazzling space to good advantage, this opera trills on the right side of the thin line between authenticity and kitsch. While the quality of the opera is clear to see, the original, seventeenth-century plans for this indoor playhouse leave little guidance on where to position surtitle boards – making drama and storytelling the focus. Responding to this alternative venue, the Royal Opera’s Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, proceeds “treating the opera as text set to music”. Throughout, the performers’ musical brilliance remains understated.

Relentlessly ornate, the new Wanamaker Playhouse offers a distinct challenge to designers: how do you place a stamp of individuality on your production, when a stunning landmark of a venue threatens to steal the show? Anja Vang Kragh’s costume designs provide the answer, with an edgy sultriness that riffs on the macabre glamour of this opera. The designer interacts well with Christopher Cowell’s neat translation of the Giovanni Faustini’s libretto, complementing a toxic world where beauty has an obvious ugly streak. A definite, gendered cynicism bleeds through the piece’s attitude to contemporary cosmetics: “Each time you kiss a woman you swallow poison.”

Queen Erisbe gets the best costume – a vibrant, elegant gown that sweeps up at the back to double as a bedsheet, cleverly ornamented by two pillows and a headboard. The queen’s whimsical dress serves as costume and setting; what it doesn’t do is cover the back of her pink French knickers, underlying L’Ormindo’s naughty flair. Later, soprano Joélle Harvey takes to the stage as Lady Luck, in Lady Gaga’s metallic haute couture dress and Lady Liberty’s overblown crown. Paradoxically, by channelling cartoonish influences onto the opera’s superficial caricatures, Vang Kragh brings depth and richness to the show.

As beeswax candles illuminate a colourful stage that Shakespeare’s Globe insists is “an archetype, rather than a replica”, a production here could be so tacky. If done frivolously, this could certainly feel like Disneyland Baroque. Thankfully, the collaborators have done well to highlight the grotesque and playful in this work, bringing a heavily-stylised storybook quality to their adaptation. As the musicians tune up, our players relax onstage in dressing-gowns, whispering and gossiping with each other and applying their make-up. When the music begins, the actors look surprised and pack up, engineering a sharp transition into what is a fictional world that simply drips with allegory.

L’Ormindo is playing at the Wanamaker Playhouse until 12 April. For more information and tickets, see the Shakespeare’s Globe website

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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