Skip to content

Struggles, Political and Poetical: Datong, The Chinese Utopia

Datong – The Chinese Utopia

by Chan Hing-Yan , libretto by Evans Chan

Hong Kong Arts Festival at Richmond Theatre, 27th and 28th July

Review by Suzanne Frost

Right from the start, a most exotic sound is coming from the orchestra pit, when the tuning to middle A is joined by flutes, chimes and Huqin – a variety of Chinese string instruments.

Datong, a chamber opera written by composer Chan Hing-Yan and librettist Evans Chan will be, to someone with no previous knowledge like me, most of all a history lesson.  It was performed in Richmond as part of the Hong Kong Music Series presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.  The work was commissioned and produced by Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Datong 1

Datong follows the story of Kang Yuwei, one of China’s most important philosophers who, at the turn of the 20th century, campaigned for political reform and human rights and envisaged a utopia of humanism, equality and solidarity – called “Datong”.  He forms a controversial figure in modern China, because instead of a revolution he favoured constitutional monarchy, believing that China, unlike America, is an old country that needs to incorporate instead of overturn tradition.  We learn about Kang through the women in his life, his daughter and, later in Act 2, granddaughter.  Kang Tongbi travelled with her father to America, became the first Asian graduate of Columbia University and met President Roosevelt to campaign for Chinese workmen’s rights.  Her father, we learn, allowed her to grow up without binding of the feet, a cruel and disabling tradition forced onto girls in China, and she became one of the early feminists.  In a time jump to 1969 we see Kang’s granddaughter Luo Yifeng sawing off the heels of her western high heel shoes while the revolution is in full swing outside.

DAtong 2

At the heart of this opera, I believe, is the struggle of reforming and honouring the traditions of an ancient country and also integrating western influences while staying true to China’s identity.

Datong5

The music is an interesting attempt at harmonising Chinese and western music, playing on themes from traditional Asian music, to the American national anthem, to the Beatles (to signify the time-lapse to 1969, a funny moment) but it is certainly very challenging music and reminds me occasionally of Aribert Reimann.  The opera is sung in Mandarin (which I later learnt from a very well informed audience member fits western opera style better than Cantonese, for the way in which the tongue is used) and occasionally in English in the scenes with Roosevelt and an English missionary.  It is surtitled throughout but the letters often fly over the screen too fast to follow.  The Chinese certainly have a very poetic way of using language, very metaphorical with lots of references to nature, weather, birds, the elements.  It is heightened language which fits opera well.  I think the subject matters, the political and philosophical struggles, don’t lend themselves that easily because they are heavy on the intellectual aspects, whereas opera is traditionally looking for heightened emotion.  But there are emotional moments, the prettiest and most poetic probably when father and daughter both read from Confucius’ manifesto, an unusual duet between bass and soprano.  The evening belongs, in my eyes, to Louise Kwong as Kang Tongbi who has a voice clear as glass and a captivating stage presence.  The setting is sparse which gives all the more glory to the elaborate traditional costumes.

Datong4

There are many things I didn’t know before that I learnt from this opera, for example that Chinese workforce build the railways in America or about the 100-Day reform, overthrown by the Qing Dynasty (Carol Lin makes a great villain as Empress Dowager Cixi with a venomously delivered recitative).  Other times, I just feel I lack a lot of background knowledge: Why is Luo Yifeng cutting off the heels of her shoes?  Is it in uproar against everything westernised?  Is she forced to do this?  Is she rebelling against the philosophies of her father?  I do not know.  I didn’t become clear to me.  What I did understand is that Kang’s utopian dream was trampled on, that his grave was vandalised, he was accused of being a Royalist and his idealistic philosophy was degraded as just empty words.  Through this controversial figure of Kang Yuwei, we get a sense of what an immense struggle it is to balance tradition, identity and modernity.

Datong3

In a silent epilogue, a young girl in modern dress enters the stage and picks up one of Luo Yifeng’s cut off heels … China, it seems, is still unsure what to do with women’s feet.

Suzanne Frost

July 2017

Photographs by Yankov Wong

The Juice Runs in Shakespeare’s Saucy Romp: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of Windsor

by William Shakespeare

YAT at the Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre, 8th to 10th August

Review by Mark Aspen

Sir John Falstaff is everybody’s loveable rouge, and was probably Queen Elizabeth I’s too.  A tradition, albeit first mentioned in writing nearly century after her death, has it that Good Queen Bess wanted to see Falstaff in love, and so commissioned Shakespeare to write more about the naughty hedonist of the two Henry IV plays.  Royal Command performance or no, Falstaff was certainly a favourite of the great unwashed groundlings, who clamoured for a resurrection of their rotund anti-hero, for whom they had shed buckets of tears on hearing, in Henry V, Mistress’ Quickly’s description of his demise.

Either way, or both, what we have in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a good rollicking knock-about, and the YAT company certainly plays to the strengths of its raison d’être, in its pre-Edinburgh Fringe preview.  It is no mean feat to condense a full five-act play down to the 55 minutes necessitated by the raw conditions out on the Fringe, but YAT have done so consummately.

121B6836

The adaptation is the joint brainchild of directors Sarah Dowd and Lizzie Lattimore, a creative pair fresh from the success of achieving three Swan Award nominations for their Titanic, the Musical, seen on the main stage at Hampton Hill Theatre last November.  Remarkably, they are also responsible for the inspired costume design, which sets this Merry Wives accurately in the Windsor of the late 1950s.

Shakespeare deliberately kept The Merry Wives of Windsor firmly lowbrow, with no elaborate verse, almost no verse at all, and lots of silly foreign accents, like Franglais and, er … Welsh.  YAT has run with this idea, so that Mistress Ford and husband are the Fords of Dagenham, whilst Mistress Page and husband are definitely Windsor and Eton Riverside.

121B6943

Mistresses Ford and Page are the eponymous merry wives and, especially in this hard-pruned version, the storyline largely revolves around Falstaff’s abortive attempts to seduce these two middle-aged ladies.  In a commanding performance, Joanna Leppink makes Mistress Page a force to be reckoned with, whilst Rebecca Tarry is an arresting Mistress Ford, equally daunting.   Together they form tight-paced duo, their acting engaged and energetic.  We all know that Falstaff will not crack these defences, even before the merry wives’ tricks are unleashed on the hapless reprobate.

 

The action is motivated by the differing emotions of the un-cuckolded husbands.  Gabriel Burns showed us an old-school-tie Page, phlegmatic, confident in himself, whereas Arran Southern’s Ford is a self-made man, perhaps one who would not be adverse to bending the rules a bit, but unsure of his standing … and of his wife.  It is his jealousy that triggers Falstaff’s misadventures.  Ford’s meeting with Falstaff, designed to uncover the truth, goes drastically awry.   Disguised as Master Brooke (another suitor of Mistress Ford), Southern nicely differentiates Ford’s alter ego, relishing the humour of the farce that develops.

121B6751

Meanwhile the romantic sub-plot bubbles away underneath.  The Pages’ desirable young daughter, Anne, played with utterly charming coyness by Emily Coates, is being wooed for her hand in marriage by Fenton, a penurious young gentleman, who is in love with her.  Freddy Gaffney plays Fenton with an intense sincerity and certainly looks the part (uncannily in the style of the youthful Prince Phillip).  However, Anne has other suitors, looking to marriage in order to gain wealth or status.  Shallow, a magistrate from Gloucestershire of three-score years, (played with mock gravitas by Joe Evans) presents his cousin Slender, whom Anne calls a fool and says she would rather be “bowled to death with turnips”.  Alex Farley’s Slender is a tank-top toting turnip, entertainingly played as a rather thick bumpkin, besotted by Anne: more fun with accents.  Anne’s other suitor is Dr Caius, a French physician, pushy and flamboyant: even more fun with accents.  Josh Clarke, assertive in this role, extracts the full humour from the part.  (However, one or two ad-libbed “bugg-euer”s would have given the flavour without over-peppering the lines.)

It all gets drastic when the volatile Caius, “the doctor of the body” challenges the Welsh pastor, Sir Hugh Evans, “the doctor of the soul”, convincingly played, as one might expect, by Gwithian Evans.  Their duel is fought, not with rapiers, but out on the local golf-course with crossed No 1 irons, with hilarious results.

The whole cast seems to have just walked in, put on their characters and simply become the part.  This is certainly true for Cath Bryant as a pragmatic and sophisticated Mistress Quickly and Jennie Hillard as the Hostess, who makes quite a packet playing both ends against the middle.  The Hostess is a cross-cast Host of the Garter Inn, and there are a good few cross-cast roles, including the veteran soldiers of the Henry plays, Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, now reduced, in Shakespeare’s description, to sharpers.

Indeed there are many sharpers in The Merry Wives of Windsor, but none so sharp as the much derided and much beloved Sir John Falstaff.  Liam Hurley excels in this central role as the pot-bellied rogue, with great comic timing, great expression and huge physicality.  Joints crack with arthritic wooing, lips smack in relishing a bottle port, thighs tremble at the thought of erotic foreplay, or, as he puts it “the prologue of our comedy”.  As an arch-epicure and arch-lecher, Falstaff is easy prey to the honey traps set up by the merry wives.  Having once escaped the jealous husband in a laundry basket, only to be dumped into a wet ditch, he is not so much a basket-case to be caught a second time, so then escapes disguised as old fat woman of Brentford, Mother Prat.  But Ford hates this in-law of his with such a vengeance that he beats “her” soundly.  However, he pushes his luck a third time, going in the forest as a satyr, expecting a ménage-à-trois with Mistresses Ford and Page.  Hurley tackled all this with great vigour, bringing out the quintessence of Falstaff, his irrepressible belief in himself.  As Falstaff says, “and you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking”.

With vivacious attack, fast pace, and a wide sense of fun, the YAT company unashamedly plays to the gallery, pulling out all the juicy bits from Shakespeare’s saucy romp.

If you see just one Shakespeare at the Edinburgh Fringe, then this should be the one.

Mark Aspen

August 2017

Photographs by Jon Constant

Editor’s Note:  YATs Merry Wives of Windsor runs at the Edinbugh Fringe in The Space, Niddry St (Venue 9)  from 14th to 19th August .  See details here

Poetry Portraits, Wide and Varied: Poetry at the Adelaide

Poetry at the Adelaide

Performance Poetry at The Adelaide, Teddington 6th August

Review by Eleanor Lewis

It’s odd, fascinating and a little depressing the reaction that the sentence: “I’m going to see some performance poetry in a room above a pub” draws from people.

“God, really?”

“Oh, how lovely, so few people do that these days!”

“Well, that’s very noble of you.  You’ll be missing Countryfile then …”

I like poetry though, and not just the “With rue my heart is laden…” stuff, but the Philip Larkin account of how your parents ruin your life and you inevitably proceed to do the same to your children, which is also the one which allowed you to say the ‘F word’ as a teenager in school without consequences.  And this is before we get to the likes of John Cooper Clarke, Roger McGough and John Hegley.  If you’re hoping to get children interested in poetry, you can achieve a lot with the ever increasing body count of dead grandparents used as an excuse to get out of PE, in Conversation Piece by Gareth Owen, but I digress …

There’s much to be said for poetry and much to be said for those to write it and perform it.

 

So a like-minded group of people assembled in a nice pub, The Adelaide in Teddington, to read and perform their own poetry is an event to be relished.  This is a monthly meeting, which has not been going for long, but is building popularity.  In the August holiday season, the group was smaller than usual but the range of poetry its members produced still wide and varied.  Entertaining, funny poems sometimes enhanced by the occasional wig or prop stood alongside darker, more intense offerings.  Thus Bob Sheed’s reworking of a familiar tale: “They offered me a tuffet, I told them to stuff it”; and Anne Warrington’s account of the good-humoured gravedigger at Teddington Cemetery who eventually ended up in the cemetery conversing with old friends, intermingled with Malissa Elliott’s intense and thrillingly disturbing portrait of the Devil as a woman.

Malissa Elliott’s ability to communicate an idea is quite a talent.  Her poem about a child learning to deal with the mother’s (I think) epilepsy was gentle, rhythmic and powerful.  Lines such as “children setting upright things which have fallen” are strangely powerful in her hands.  Later on, her gently but clearly read account of creeping, overwhelming industrialisation and the people who ease its progress, was a vivid warning of an environmental apocalypse to come.

Fran Thurling’s poem Not Sleeping: “Book ended by the shipping forecast, the world sails by…” created a soothing atmosphere with deceptively simple images.

There was a mix of people taking part in the event, a reasonable age range (though not many younger people) and a range of performance skills, some more confident than others and some more naturally skilled or skilled by their working lives (I can spot an ex-primary school teacher at 50 paces).  I would like to have had a clearer impression of Colin Dailey’s work, particularly his poem on Copernicus, but his reading was a little reserved.

The poetry on show last Sunday was, I understand, all written by the contributors, though the group is happy to include people who simply want to read poems they particularly like.  Other aims include inviting published poets and perhaps having themed evenings in future.  This is a great event at which to hone your performance skills, showcase your own poetry, or simply to listen to poetry.  Something to look forward to as autumn approaches and the warm, inviting atmosphere of The Adelaide, a great place in which to experience it all.

Eleanor Lewis

August 2017

Fly Me to the Moon: Millie’s Dream

Millie’s Dream

by Emma-Louise Tinniswood

Step On Stage, Queen Charlotte Theatre, Richmond

Review by Simon Ledbury

The direction of our lives depend on so many what-ifs, some for the better, some for the worse.  But what if the what-if is something entirely catastrophic: the sort of thing that we believe only happens to other people?

When the audience sat down in the Queen Charlotte Theatre, Richmond for the annual showcase performed by the Musical Theatre students of Step On Stage, I am sure they were expecting light-hearted musicals.  But the advanced group had something else in store for them.   A brand-new play called Millie’s Dream, written by Emma-Louise Tinniswood especially for ten young actors in the 11-17 age group.  However, this was far from the light-hearted musical the audience had been expecting and, right from the beginning, it was a riveting experience which had the audience hooked throughout.

Millie Dream2

Millie’s Dream tells the story of an eight years old girl who is involved in a car accident with her parents and younger brother.  Her mother dies in the accident and Millie is so badly injured that she is unable to walk.   The play takes place in the hospital ward and focusses on Millie’s love of writing and telling stories and on the story she creates to help her cope with her situation.   But this is also the story of Millie aged 28 and the play moves between the two characters, showing how events have changed Millie and how they make her the person she becomes.

Millie Dream1

This was a very talented cast of young actors, who delivered every word with the skill of much older performers.   You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium from the very start and it was clear that a number of audience members were moved to tears.   The flashbacks of the crash are brought vividly to life and one audience member was particularly moved as she later explained how realistically the crash and the policewoman’s descriptions were of the scene, and how vividly her own car accident several years ago was brought back to life with the play.

Jasmine Carmody played young Millie and Millie Beazley played older Millie.   Both of these actors should be praised for their sensitive and mature performances of what is a difficult subject.   Katie Meara played the mum with thoughtfulness.  Her monologue speaking to her daughter from beyond was a particularly poignant moment.  But all cast members played an equal role in the beautifully written and choreographed ensemble sections and they were delivered with conviction and passion.   Mime and choral speaking within the play was outstanding.    Especially composed music was used at key moments and the set was minimalistic to allow for easy changes of scene and for moments of well-choreographed physical theatre sequences, such as when Millie is involved in the accident and when she travels to the moon in her story.

Millie Dream3

This was a sophisticated performance and a moving play which deserves to be seen by a wider audience, who will not fail to be moved.

Simon Ledbury

July 2017

Photographs by Louise Hill

Water Flows, Petals Scatter, Memories Revive

Memories Flow Through Me Like a Boat Flows Down the River

Dance Celebration of the History of the Belgian Refugees of the First World War

Cambridge Gardens, East Twickenham, 22nd July

Review by Suzanne Frost

“Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it!”  Dear Mark Twain, how we wish we could …

But here we are, huddled together under a small tent with a very lovely cupcake man saving us from the lashing rain.  Business has been bad for him on this most miserable day for an English Summer Fair but, as the heavens show no sign of clearing any time soon, we all start feeling guilty for using his tent and one by one give in to the cupcake temptation.  (A big shout out to Ruby and Lola’s Cakery for sweetening the wait!)  Of course we all hoped the poor dancers wouldn’t have to perform on a wet ground, but when it is still chucking it down half an hour later, the performers admirably decide to brave the weather and go on with the show since we all came here to see it.  Memories flow through me a like a boat flows down the river is a scene-specific dance performance created by choreographer Jennifer Irons with a group that included dancers from Rambert School of Ballet and the University of Roehampton.

Commissioned to celebrate the history of 6,000 Belgian refugees of World War I, who created a vibrant community in Twickenham known as la village Belge sur la Tamise (the Belgian village on the Thames), where they built a munition factory, the Pelabon Works, that used to be on the very grounds we are now standing on in our cupcake tent.  Forced to flee their own country after the Germans invaded in 1914, the fall of the Belgian resistance is what actually drew Britain into the Great War, as the treaty of London committed Britain to guarantee Belgium’s independence.  The East Twickenham Centennial Group is championing the local history of the Belgian refugees with a new public memorial in Warren Gardens and this dance performance that forms part of the 2017 East Twickenham Summer Fair.

Twickenham Tweets @ Twickerati_The 1WW Twickenham & Richmond Belgian Refugee Memorial 1

Memorial:  Photography by Twickenham Tweets

With a bit of goodwill from the weather gods, the pouring rain decreases to a mild drizzle and, as the dancers start handing out sunflowers and apples in their period costume to some jolly funfair music, you could almost imagine it was a warm summer day.  All refugee stories – and this is something we would all do well to remember – start with a goodbye: to home, to habits, friends, family, an entire livelihood left behind.  A family, Belgian by their black red and yellow armlets, holds on tight, almost knotting themselves together, wrapping their arms around each other and waving, waving endless goodbyes.  We then meet an English family setting up for a picnic on the grass.  The Belgian newcomers imitate their customs, setting up their own picnic basket and blanket under the watchful and wary eyes of the English.  But once the initial hostility is overcome, common ground is found in the shared experience of being a family, being human.  A kind of mutual respect seems to form between the two men and soon we see both families working hard side by side in the factory, effortlessly translated into dance by repetitive robotic hand movements standing in one line.  They are interrupted by the sound of a deep siren – which I interpreted as an airstrike.  The Belgian family then makes its way towards the water front, followed by the English family scattering flower petals on their path.  An air of grief and goodbyes hangs over the procession slowly walking along the quay.  The Belgians put on life jackets and get into a small wooden boat that rows them down the river and out of sight.  “They went home without leaving a trace”, it says on a small leaflet I was given early on, together with an apple and a flower.  The boat leaves no trace on the water but in this dance performance, the Belgian family left a trace in the hearts of the people staying behind.

Walking back home I am thinking about the current refugee crisis and our collective fear at how these people might impact on our communities.  It is important to be reminded that all Europeans were refugees at some point in their history and had to rely on the goodwill and humanity of their new country.  Also, no refugees are coming because they enjoy our food and the English weather.  They come because they have no alternative.  The story of the Belgian refugees of Twickenham shows that the mixing of cultures can vibrantly, valuably influence a community and our common humanity can overcome boundaries.  Statistics show that almost 70% of refugees return home once they get the chance.  Do we want them to leave without a trace?  Or will we be the ones waving goodbyes with a heavy heart.

Suzanne Frost

July 2017

Editor’s Note:  The title of the dance piece is taken from the inscription on the memorial to the Belgian refugees, which was composed by the then nine years old Issy Holton, whose wording, “Memories flow through me like a boat flows down the river”, was chosen from ideas submitted by pupils of Orleans Primary School, the school where the majority of the Belgian children went a century and more ago.  See:  Friendship and Cooperation in Europe: Belgian Village on the Thames

 

 

Soaring Beauty Only Dreamt About: German Opera

German Opera

Opera Foundry at Ormond Road, Richmond, 1st July

Review by Mark Aspen

Continued from Power, Passion and Precision: German Opera

 

The monumental scale (even in this chamber recital) of Der Ring des Niebelungen that closed the first half of Opera Foundry’s exposé of German Opera set the precedent for its embodiment in the musical concepts of Wagner.   Of course no sampling of German opera would be complete without Wagner, whose perception of integrated music drama thoroughly chimes with that proposed by Harsdörfer, and none more so than in Der Ring des Niebelungen.  The Ring concludes with Götterdämmerung and towards the end of Act I Waltraute recounts what has happened to Wotan, Höre mit Sinn, was ich dir sage!  (Listen thoughtfully to what I am going to tell you).  Annette Dumville’s Waltraute told the story of Wotan’s shattered spear with firm mezzo voice, accurate in note and pronunciation.  (It was interesting to hear the wide range of German accents, whereas most pronunciation nowadays favours the sounds of the Ruhrgebiet, Dumville’s was firmly placed Hochdeutsch.)

In a similar vein is Wagner’s colossal romantic opera, Lohengrin.  A key aria in this work is Elsa’s dream.  Elsa is a young noblewomen, who stands accused of the murder of her brother Gottfried, heir to the Duchy of Brabant.  (There is a tenth-century historical background when the King of Saxony was trying to forge an alliance with Brabant, now part of Belgium, against Hungarian invaders.  As part of the jostling for various thrones, Gottfried did disappear in suspicious circumstances.)  The Saxon King Henry and his knights are uncomfortable that Telramund, Gottfried and Elsa’a guardian, has brought this charge against Elsa, but agrees that she should be put on trial.  Times being as they were, Telramund demands a trial by battle.  She prays to God and has a dream which she describes in her aria, Einsam in trüben Tagen (Once on a bleak day).  Ukrainian soprano, Tamara Ravenhill, took up the story with great poise and expressive delivery.  It is of her knight in shining armour who leans on his sword and caries a golden horn.  “Er soll mein Streiter sein” (He will be my champion) she declares.  (He will come in a skiff pulled by a swan … that beats a white charger anyday!)

Wagner’s one crack at comedy, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is actually more of a light romance with a sideways look at human nature.  The Prize Song, for which would-be mastersingers competed, was an historical annual event at Nuremberg during the middle ages.  (Hans Sachs, who lived 1494 to 1576, and who appears in the opera, held the master-singer title many times.)  Walther, a Franconian knight, chances by Nuremberg during the competition time, falls in love with Eva, and vows to win the competition and Eva’s hand.  Matthew Connolly returned as Walther to sing The Morning Dream, his prize song, Morgendlich leuchtend in rassigen Schein (The morning radiant in its vibrant glow), which he has composed under Sachs’ guidance.  Connolly was better placed as Walther than as Caspar to make full use of the vibrancy of his tenor voice, giving an affecting rendition of the determined Walther’s musical quest for the hand of Eva.   During the first half of the performance we had seen how Sachs had relinquished any claim to Eva and calling in Magdalene, Eva friend, and David, his apprentice, declared that a master-song had been born in his workshop.  Traditionally the song must be baptised, but an apprentice cannot be a witness, so Sachs promotes David to journeyman with a cuff around the ear (another quaint Nuremberg tradition).  They sing together, all rejoicing (from very different viewpoints) in the outcome and in Eva and Walther’s love, Selig wie die Sonne (blessed as the sun).  Opera foundry’s quintet was exceptional, Eva, Magdalene, Walther, David and Sachs (Ravenhill, Dumville, Connolly, Johnson and Andrade) complementing and enhancing each other’s’ voices as they wove a delicate embroidery of harmonies.

Nuremberg is a long way from Richmond, but the opera Martha is set in an around the marketplace in Richmond in 1710.  In fact it is a very cosmopolitan opera.  The composer, Friedrich von Flotow was a German aristocrat, who studied at the Conservatoire de Paris, and Martha has a German libretto based on a French story.  Moreover, it started life as a ballet, specially composed for Parisian ballerina, Adèle Dumilâtre.  It is however, a fun piece of romantic opera, which, although there is a strong element of farce: think Feydeau meets G&S.  Two gentlewomen, Harriet and Nancy, maids-of-honour to Queen Anne, masquerade as maidservants as a ploy to outwit Harriet’s foppish admirer.  Getting carried away with the fun, they queue up with the servants at Richmond market, who are looking for work.  Two young farmers, Lyonel and Plunkett, take them on as housemaids, but then, to the ladies’ consternation, they discover that they have entered into twelve months of indentured service.  Their suitability for their new positions is severely tested when they are put to work spinning yarn, a task at which both ladies are totally incompetent. The Spinning-Wheel Quartet, is quite demanding, requiring lots of ha-ha-ing at the girls’ inability to do a domestic chore and the men’s attempts to show them how.  The demand is largely on breathing control but all were up to the challenge. Na! Jetzt hurtig, ohne Zaudern (Come on now, nimbly, without hesitation), urge Lyonel (Padua) and Plunkett (Beer).  Was soll ich dazu sagen? (What should I say about that?) replies Lady Harriet, who now bears the soubriquet Martha.  Foster-Mitchell in the role of Martha was joined by mezzo, Urszula Bock.  Both were enchanting as the bemused pair.  The lesson continues until the very (be)witching hour of Mitternacht  and the Good Night Quartet.  Again, this was a nicely balanced quartet, although the male voices seemed a little stretched at the top end of their registers.  Schlafe wohl! Und mag dich reuen (Sleep well! – and I may regret you …) they sing.  And shortly they do regret, for no sooner have the ladies said their Gute Nacht s but they are out of the window and fleeing back to the posher parts of Richmond.  (In 1710 there were also non-posh parts.)  There was a huge sense of illicit fun and misplaced adventure zooming out of this piece: plus the story happens in Richmond!

German Opera continued in this mode, with a piece which starts fairly light-heartedly, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Märchenoper (fairy tale opera), Hänsel und Gretel.  The libretto, which was written by Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette, is based on the Grimms’ fairy tale.  But all Grimm brothers’ tales soon have a darker undercurrent. (See Glass’ opera, Living Bones! The Juniper Tree ).  From a poor home, in which hunger and love are equi-present, the eponymous brother and sister venture into the forest, where peril and idyll are equi-present, a metaphor for the real world.  Urszula Bock and Angela Vouyajolu, as the young siblings, were a delight to hear and to watch.  They formed a musically satisfying duet and a very credible acting pair.  Gretel teaching Hansel to dance, Brüderchen, komm tanz’ mit mir (Little brother come and dance with me) was utterly joyous.  Vouyajolu’s bell-like soprano and Bock’s silky mezzo complemented each other perfectly.   The piece is folk-tune inspired and gains a lot from its simplicity.  (I had slight niggle with the surtitles though: isn’t nick better translated as nod, and makes more sense.)  Then like Eve eating the apple, they come across the gingerbread house, break off pieces and savour them, O Himmel, welch Wunder ist hier geschehen! (O Heaven, what miracle has happened here!).  “Don’t do it!” we inwardly shout.

Vouyajolu and Bock reappeared, together with Ravenhill, in German Opera’s final piece which was from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.   Also the finale of the opera itself, this trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt (I made a vow), the opening words of the Marschellin, was sung by Ravenhill with dignity and restraint.  The somewhat sordid shenanigans of the romantic intrigues of the Viennese aristocracy dissolve in the joy of the two young lovers, Sophie (Vouyajolu) and Octavian (Bock).  The soaring beauty of the sentiment was enriched by the arching beautiful sustained notes by this talented trio.

The bedrock of the evening’s performance, on which the remarkable skills of the singers were firmly based was the accomplished and indefatigable piano accompaniment of Opera Foundry’s répétiteur, Sarah Quantrell.  The word “accompaniment” rather underplays its part in the performance, as it was in all cases replacing what would normally be an orchestra (chamber, Baroque or full symphony in size as the work would demand).  She was unfalteringly there with the singers in all fourteen of the opera extracts, a tour de force.

After Italian Opera, then French Opera and now German Opera, what delights has Richard Cartmale next in store (Russian opera?)?  We wait with bated breath.  But for this evening of German Opera one could feel the spirit of Georg Philipp Harsdörfer sitting there in the front row, nodding approval for Opera Foundry’s wide and well-chosen exposé of the German language art form that he had only dreamt about.

Mark Aspen

July 2017

 

Photographs by Robert Piwko Photgraphy

 

Power, Passion and Precision: German Opera

German Opera

Opera Foundry at Ormond Road, Richmond, 1st July

Review by Mark Aspen

Way back in 1641 the German polyglot Georg Philipp Harsdörfer was sharing his wide-ranging ideas and expressing them in the sixteen languages he spoke. (As a self-described Arcadian poet, he had a way with words.)   These wide ranging skills included how to fold napkins into models of partridge nests, one of the many useful knacks described in Frauenzimmer Gesprechspiele (conversational plays for women’s chambers), that were a sort of Teach Yourself book for women, in eight easy lessons, on how to become a useful member of society.   However, at the same time, he was also writing a book whose subject might go down somewhat better in 2017.  His Pegnesisches Schäfergedicht (Pastoral of Pegnitz) was extolling the virtues of an integrated theatrical work that would involve poetry, music, singing, dance, painting, and set design, a work called opera.

Exactly that year, 1641, Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (See Improvisation of Genius: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria) premiered in Venice, where the world’s first opera house had been built four years earlier, but for Harsdörfer Italian opera was “künstlich, gekünstelt” (artificial and affected).  He was proposing a German language version of opera that would present heroic acts and moral edification.

Opera Foundry had oodles of the former and a sprinkling of the latter as it took a Saturday evening romp through the genre that Harsdörfer dreamt of: German Opera.  Its showcase of German language opera by-passed Handel, Gluck and Haydn to start the dream 140 years after Harsdörfer, with a real biggy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

RC at German Opera

Opera Foundry’s musical director, Richard Cartmale has curated his showcase to represent the “biggy” period of German opera, which roughly encompasses nineteenth century with two decades either side. In fact we got two chronological romps, Mozart to Humperdinck, then start again and Mozart to Richard Strauss.  And what a great evening it was, sharp and fresh emerging opera singers delivering a programme that had power, passion and precision.

Whilst not staged, the pieces were acted and the audience was engaged, an audience that encouragingly include quite few children.

We start with the late eighteenth century with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, rooted strongly in the Singspiel tradition and first mounted in Schikaneder’s rough Viennese music hall: robust stuff for the masses.  Papageno has just found a much better option than hanging, his soulmate Papagena.  A playful duet interacting Barnaby Beer’s baritone and Camilla Jeppeson’s soprano sense of joy as they contemplated lots of “Kindchen” made a light-hearted opening to the evening.

Still with Mozart in early Singspiel mode, Die Entführung aus dem Serail continued the serio-comic style.  At the beginning of Act II, Blondchen, Constanza’s maid, makes it clear that girls appreciate gentle treatment, in her aria Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln (through tenderness and flattery).  Moving from the lyrical towards a more dramatic soprano, which seems to suit her better, Jeppeson took up the role of Blondchen, accurately hitting the three high E’s in a row with which Blondchen underlines her point.  Enter Osmin, sung by wide ranging bass David Banbury, who acted the harem’s overseer as suitably sinister and well put-down in their duet Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir (I’m going, but I warn you!) for which he suffers a nice line in sneers.   But soon Blondchen’s sweetheart Pedrillo, Belmonte’s manservant, who has inveigled his way into the palace, comes to the rescue by getting Osmin drunk.  In their duet, Vivat Bachus!, Pedrillo, sung by rounded tenor Richard Johnson, soon converts Osmin from Allah to Bacchus.  We are back in the harem in the second half with the quartet that forms the Act III finale, Ach Belmonte, Ach mein Leben!  (Oh, Belmonte, love of my life.)  Blondchen, Pedrillo and Belmonte are joined by the now released Constanza, who sing of the graciousness of the Pasha and rejoice in their freedom.  Camilla Foster-Mitchell brought a clarity to the soprano role, which she played with great dignity.

We were first introduced to Foster-Mitchell as part of the quartet Mir ist so wunderbar (It is wonderful to me) from Beethoven’s Fidelio.  As Marcelline her misplaced infatuation with Fidelio (“he” is Leonora in disguise) was beautifully conveyed, not only with delightful coloratura but sensitive expression.  Pizarro, the prison governor, has a hidden agenda, namely to starve to death Floristan, Leonora’s husband.  Brazilian baritone André Andrade was definitely the Spanish don in this role, relishing the thought of Floristan’s demise in his aria, Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick (Ah! What a moment), very much a showpiece aria.  Then he plots to bring the moment forward, with the aid of a somewhat reluctant Rocco, in their duet Jetzt, Alter, hat es Eile!  (Now, old man, it is urgent!).    Bass David Banbury returned to play the very worried looking Rocco, the old gaoler, who doesn’t immediately grasp what is required of him.  Andrade very forcefully rams home Pizaro’s intention, “Morden” (murder).  Rocco gasps “Oh Herr” but then reflect that Floristan is already “wie ein Schatten” (like a shadow).   Another remarkable performance in this quartet was that of Louise Herrington as the hapless Leonora, who has overheard this plot, horrified she cries Abscheulicher!  Wo eilst du hin?  (Abominable man!  Where are you rushing off?).  Herrington’s beautiful soprano aria was sung with heart-wrenching passion.

IMG_5643

Weber’s opera Oberon has the distinction of being originally written in English, as it was commissioned by Charles Kemble, the actor-impresario for Convent Garden, just before Weber died in 1826.  It has since been back-translated to German several times, by Theodor Hell, a close friend of Weber, and in the twentieth century by the versatile Anthony Burgess (perhaps best known for A Clockwork Orange).  The German version used by Opera Foundry is by Gustav Mahler.   Tenor, Matthew Connolly sang Huon’s aria, Von Jugend auf in dem Kampfgefild (From youth onto the field of battle) with great strength in the daring-do, and a long held “Sieg!” (victory!), but somewhat less convincing in the delights of “Lieb” (love).  South African mezzo, Liezel Brink-McCulloch gave a reflective aria as Fatime in Arabien, mein Heimatland (Arabia, my native country) and was joined in her reminiscences by baritone Barnaby Beer as Scherasmin, but in their duet their thoughts still remain heavy, “bleib schwer”.

With Oberon, Weber was in the vanguard of German romantic opera, but Der Freischütz, premiering in 1821, is regarded as his masterpiece.  Panamanian bass-baritone Derek S Henderson treated us to a gripping rendition of Caspar’s aria, Schweig! Schweig! Damit dich niemand warnt.  (Silence, silence! Let nobody warn you.)  He is about to offload a pact he made with the devil, so this is pretty formidable stuff.  But we had already seen Henderson at the end of the first half and knew what he could do.  The aria was Leb’ wohl (farewell), Wotan’s Farewell, the culmination of Die Walküre, the second opera in The Ring.  Wotan enfolds Brünnhilde his daughter into an enchanted sleep, kisses her and lays her on a rock.  Then summoning the god of fire to encircle her with flame to protect her, then slowly departs.  Henderson’s imperious voice was outstanding for this moving piece, wide and rich in range, powerful, the scale epic.  The Magic Fire Music was enhanced by video images on the surtitle screen, a magic moment to conclude the scene.

To be continued

Mark Aspen

July 2017

Photographs by Robert Piwko Photgraphy