I take the boiz to the OPERA and NOTHING BAD HAPPENS

April 27, 2015 at 11:09 am | Posted in music, reviews, theatre | Leave a comment
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In between building Lego spaceships and using unlucky shrubs as goalposts and designing underground lairs to live in when they’re grown up, the boiz have been vaguely intrigued by my Damascene conversion to opera. They peer over my shoulder, going ‘Is that Iestyn Davies AGAIN?’, and hum Handel/Thunderbirds mashups while eating their tea. I came out of Rinaldo last year thinking the 9yo would have loved it, so I got all excited when I spotted Swanhunter – a short opera by Jonathan Dove, written with younger audiences in mind, brought to The Lowry* by Opera North in collaboration with The Wrong Crowd.

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Palpable tension in the air as we wait for tea to arrive

In proper opera-going fashion, we got dolled up and headed for Pizza Express. Me: ‘That’s the bar where the bouncer gave James Laing the side eye.’ Boiz: ‘Yes mummy. Can we have ice cream?’

Suddenly it was five to seven. A last-minute dash got us to our seats in the lovely, intimate Quays Theatre; row J gave us a brilliant view. The 6yo sat on my rolled-up coat. ‘When’s it going to staaaaart?’ ‘Soon.’

Swanhunter opens with the cast swapping stories around the campfire. The opera is based on a Finnish legend: Lemminkäinen travels to the frozen North in search of a wife, where the Mistress of the North sets him three perilous tasks involving mythical beasts before she’ll allow him to see the girl of his dreams. This is a tale of love, bravery, foolhardiness, death, resurrection and the magical power of song; pretty spot-on for an opera.

It’s a small-but-perfectly-formed production: six cast members, a variety of clever props, and a kooky little folk-meets-classical band including a squeezebox, a harp and a French horn. Marvellously, the music wasn’t at all dumbed down for kids, apart from in the shorter running time. It was a proper opera. Dove writes amazingly for voices, teasing everything out of the singers’ vocal and emotional ranges; the Swan’s stunt aria knocked all our socks off, and there was so much to love in both solo and ensemble writing, brought to life through some terrific singing and playing. (We particularly liked how the Mistress of the North had her own theme, a bit like a character from Bod.) Despite it being all modern and everything, I was relieved to see a few operatic rules being adhered to. The hero was a tenor, his mother a contralto, the baddie a bass. There was no cross-dressing this time, sadly (though I can imagine a reprise with a countertenor as the Mistress of the North, in her Brighton Rock wig). I could say to the boiz with honesty at the end, ‘The operas I go to are just like that. Just bigger. And longer.’

Rachael Canning Puppets for Swanhunter , Lighthouse Poole 21-04-2015We go to the odd kids’ play, and I tend to avoid puppetry, finding much of it uninteresting compared to real people doing actual acting (though this may have its roots in my pathological childhood fear of the Muppets. I’m fine nowadays. Really.). But the puppet animals stole this show. The Mistress of the North’s dogs, scenting something suspicious from the South; the Devil’s Elk, all red leather antlers and torchlit eyes; the huge Devil’s Horse, pawing the ground and rearing, but eating out of Lemminkäinen’s hand by the end.

It was pacy and witty and dark and scary and moving and surprising. The 6yo sat there for an hour with his mouth open. (Boyf: ‘I’ve never seen him sit still for that long.’) There were some jolly small people in the audience (one mother had brought a booster seat for her daughter to sit on), but I didn’t hear a squeak from anyone the whole way through.

When the lights went up, the 9yo stretched and said, ‘Well… That was long.’ But on the way out he was talking excitedly about the singing and the way the music made the dogs bark and how Lemminkäinen was his favourite. Me, to the 6yo: ‘What was YOUR favourite bit?’ Him: ‘I just liked it all.’

Nobody wanted to go and hang around the stage door, despite me insisting that it wasn’t a proper trip to the opera unless you did a bit of fangirling. But I cheered up when the 9yo put his hand in mine. ‘I’d like to go to the opera again.’ Job done.

* More Local Opera Locally

Swanhunter’s tour continues to Alnwick, Hexham, Canterbury and Harrogate.

I go to the GRAND to see FIGARO

January 27, 2015 at 8:22 pm | Posted in music, reviews | Leave a comment
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The Rules

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro premiered in 1786, a tad late for a Baroque chick like me. But everyone said ‘Oh, Figaro, such a treat!’, and it was just up the road, and the last Local Opera I went to was a triumph, so what could possibly go wrong? The boiz dutifully signed the Riot Act in triplicate; we left them with my Mum, a stack of fish fingers and a Tintin boxset, and made a dash for the train.

Now, Leeds Grand. That’s a proper theatre. It’s gorgeous: all red and gilt and plush, with art deco lighting and beautiful Victorian tiles. As you meander along the corridor looking for the bar [cough], the curve and gentle rise give you the sensation of being on a very stately boat. And it’s the first theatre I’ve been to since schooldays that has opera glasses between the seats. WIN.

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Squeeee!

I’d done a smidgen of homework – enough to realise that the boyf singing FIGARO FIGARO FIGARO FIGARO was a cunning ploy to distract me* – but I’d never heard the opera before. Actually, of course, I had; a lot of it, at least. Figaro’s pretty much Now That’s What I Call Mozart – all those tunes you know from the radio, adverts and hold music. My Mum complains that the beauty of the music in Figaro is let down by the triteness of the story. It IS a bit of a romp, with some of my favourite operatic tropes: The Rudimentary Disguise That Somehow Fools Everyone, Even Your Husband; Chicks Playing Chaps (in this case, Chicks Playing Chaps Playing Chicks); and enough mistaken identity, misconstrued eavesdrops, sneaking in and out of rooms and trousers-round-ankles to fill a couple of Alan Ayckbourns. Everyone’s trying to sleep with/ marry/ outwit/ avoid someone, and women mostly triumph** – Figaro even has an MRA-style rant about how fiendish and untrustworthy the ladies are.

Casting this opera must be tricky: everyone needs to be a comic actor as well as look the part. The acting was consistently excellent: Helen Sherman was great as randy pageboy Cherubino, Silvia Moi’s Susanna was lovable and intelligent, and Jeremy Peaker stole all scenes as the call-a-spade-a-shovel Gardener. There were some standout musical performances: Richard Burkhard was a terrific Figaro, with an impressive sound throughout his range, and Ana Maria Labin’s delicious voice made the Countess’s arias things of utter beauty (even if some of them were about writing giggly letters). But I wondered about the matching of voices to some other parts. While Ellie Laugharne’s acting and physical type suited Barbarina perfectly, I wished her gorgeous voice had been given more to do. Quirijn de Lang made a devilish Count (you could almost hear him murmuring, ‘With MY reputation?!’), but I wasn’t sure he quite commanded the role musically***.

Unusually, there was no FANGIRLING to be done this time, so the boyf and I and Hannah and Mr Fish roamed the streets hungrily, looking for a bar that wasn’t going DOOFDOOFDOOFDOOF. The kitchen had closed at Veeno but they magicked up cheese to go with our wine, and the boyf and Mr Fish talked audaxing while Hannah and I tried to pinpoint the exact year in which everyone suddenly decided it was fine to wear patent platforms to graduation.

And the Figaro verdict? Well, I laughed a lot, but remained otherwise strangely unmoved (noteworthy, for me, as I’ve been known to cry at Charlie and Lola). The boyf pointed out that we were under the balcony, so this muffled the sound; maybe that had something to do with it (back to the Upper Circle next time, then). But I came away wondering whether I just didn’t like Mozart much. I know, I know, this is heresy. I can hear that it’s beautiful and clever and witty, but it leaves me cold. It’s a bit like George Clooney: I can see he’s terribly good-looking, and I know everyone is NUTS about him, but he just doesn’t float my boat.

* it’s from The Barber Of Seville. When I pointed this out, the boyf switched to singing AI NO CORRIDA! instead. Okay

** Hooray!

*** if I had the cash, I’d go back later in the run, as this may have been a first-night effect

I go to some LOCAL OPERA

November 24, 2014 at 8:56 pm | Posted in music, reviews | Leave a comment
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Opera! On my DOORSTEP! Well, almost. Opera North’s The Coronation of Poppea came to the Lowry, a mere hour’s drive away, and it would be daft not to, wouldn’t it.

Now, you’ll remember my trip to the Barbican to see what is known in Opera North circles as The Other One. The prospect of seeing Poppea fully-staged was exciting, not least because I could pretend to be a Proper Critic and do oh-yes-well-the-last-production-of-this-I-saw and all that. Gosh! I packed my notebook and practised my Serious Opera Expression.

Still behaving ourselves at this point

The Serious Opera Expression didn’t last long once I met Mary, who’d answered my twitter plea for a partner-in-crime. Like all the best people, she turned out to be crackers, and we got on immediately. We stuffed ourselves with pizza and repaired to the Upper Circle in a state of high excitement, pausing only to chat to a Professor of Child Language I used to work with [name-drop face].

Here’s a quick quiz to refresh your memory. Poppea is a tale of (tick all that apply*):

□ Blood               □ Guts                 □ Loyalty            □ Betrayal          □ Manipulation

□ Power              □ Lust                  □ Revenge          □ Love                □ Social climbing

This production committed itself to exploring these themes in loving detail. The opening scene set the tone for the evening: Virtue, Fortune and Cupid debated their relative power over mortals against a backdrop of wine-drinking, guffawing and lurid snogging. They then settled back in cinema seats to munch popcorn as a Tarantinoesque evening of bloodletting, gun-waving, knife-wielding and sex unfolded.

The shockwaves caused by Nerone’s infatuation were tangible, and as the opera was sung in English, it was easy to become immersed in the action (even if rhyming ‘strumpet’ with ‘crumpet’ did raise a few titters from the audience). The staging made clever use of a small set of flexible props. I particularly liked how Bloody Marys symbolised Ottavia’s despair, and her dismissal by Nerone; at the end, a fridgeful of jugs of the stuff portended the carnage to come.

Did I mention the sex? GOSH. I mean, PHEW. Nerone is usually sung by a soprano, but James Laing’s countertenor suited the role perfectly, and he was a rangy, rakish emperor, louche and petulant by turns. He and Sandra Piques Eddy’s pulchritudinous, silk-clad Poppea were gloriously matched, dragging each other about half-dressed, barely able to keep their hands to themselves.

James Laing as Nerone, Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea. Photo (c) Robert Workman, used with kind permission

James Laing as Nerone, Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea. Photo (c) Robert Workman, used with kind permission

I wondered at first about the pairing of their two voices – Poppea rich and powerful in a grand-opera style, Nerone much more Baroque – but decided it reflected the power dynamic quite nicely: the initial scenes, where Nerone is on the back foot and Poppea is busy manipulating him, contrasted effectively with the final love duet, where their voices merged so convincingly that it was hard to tell who was singing what, especially as they were on top of each other on a table, and it was so lovely, I had a bit of a cry.

There was a real synergy among the musicians and the cast, so much that it feels odd to pick out individuals in what was so obviously a group enterprise. But I’m going to do it anyway. James Laing was a revelation; I’d only seen him previously as the Magician in Rinaldo, where he didn’t get much to do. His voice is powerful, well-modulated and expressive, and the top end is truly stunning; I’ve added him to my list of People To Follow Around Slightly Obsessively. Emilie Renard was a gorgeous Cupid, funny and well-judged with a delicious voice; another one to watch out for**. I loved Sandra Piques Eddy’s just-the-right-side-of-bitchy Poppea, and Katherine Manley brought a witty girlishness to poor, doomed, trusting Drusilla.

Mary and I nearly went straight home at the end. We really did. But, you know. No opera’s complete without a bit of fangirling. We gushed excitedly all over Emilie and James, and got invited for a drink! Heavens. This conversation ensued:

Bouncer [to James]: What’s in the carrier bag?

James: Er, I’ve got my stuff from the theatre, and…

Me: DO YOU KNOW this man is INTERNATIONAL OPERA STAR who’s just been on stage at the LOWRY?

Bouncer: [side eye]

We ended up in the venue bar where everyone was utterly sweet and friendly to us and we talked about LOADS of stuff and it was someone’s birthday and if you’ve never heard a whole opera cast break into Happy Birthday spontaneously, well, that’s what I want for mine next year, if that’s ok. What a terrific night. There’s one more performance, in Nottingham next Saturday: I’m seriously considering leaping in the car and driving down, it was that good, so GO, get a ticket. Go on. I’ll see you at the stage door.

B3FVI-rIgAAmhlg

Emilie, Mary, me, James #adventuresinfangirling

* answer: all of the above

** She also ticked the chick-playing-a-chap box; as you know, all proper operas involve a bit of cross-dressing.

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