Posts Tagged ‘Britten Theatre’

The Fairy Queen, English Touring Opera, ETO, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, October 2011

12 October, 2011

Purcell for the twenty first century — or perhaps the seventeenth, or the nineteenth — and it’s enormous fun.

All photos Richard Hubert Smith

This semi-opera, based on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a series of masques written by Purcell a century later in the early 1690s, and this production is based on the incarceration in a mental hospital of nineteenth century artist Richard Dadd. His work shows a fascination with fairies and other supernatural subjects, including scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

It all starts before the overture as two figures shimmy up ropes in the darkness, hanging there like bats. When the lights come on we see Oberon and Titania camouflaged in leotards of sky blue and clouds against a similar background. Then suddenly they move, daringly high up on the stage. You think this is daringly modern, yet apart from the lighting we could well be back in the seventeenth century, and as soon as the overture is over we are in Dadd’s lunatic asylum.


I’ve seen lots of operas with hospital beds in recent years, but this one really works. One patient is missing, and as he arrives in pyjamas, utterly inebriated, he wanders into the audience, plucks the lady in front of me from her seat, and asks to play blind man’s buff. He then takes her seat and sings to her neighbour before the other performers chase him through the auditorium.

It’s a magical mixture of ribaldry, sensuality and melancholy to Purcell’s effortlessly enjoyable music from the seventeenth century, played on period instruments. The musicians, conducted by Joseph McHardy give full rein to the gambolling lyricism of the music as well as its sadder and more pensive aspects. The period instruments are vital to creating a lightness of touch, which can be utterly lost if we play Purcell as a venerable English composer from hundreds of years ago. Venerable? My goodness he was barely 36 when he died, and anyone who has been to the Globe Theatre will recognise the rhythmic pulse of his music in the dances that the performers put on at the end of the show.

Thomas Guthrie’s production with its designs by Roger Butlin and excellent lighting by Kevin Treacy, has moments of pure enchantment. The acrobats on the ropes were superb, and the mysterious figures of the Oberon and Titania puppets were cleverly manipulated, particularly when they danced. This was an entrancing evening with fine performances from the singers; I particularly liked Nina Lejderman’s voice and Aidan Smith in his role as the drunkard was huge fun.

This is an evening to enjoy, not just to hear the music of England’s finest native-born composer before the twentieth century, but to be connected to four hundred years of English entertainment from the first late Elizabethan age to the second.

Performances continue on tour: Theatre Royal Bath, 17th Oct 2011; Buxton Opera House, 20th Oct; West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 27th Oct; Theatre Royal, Lincoln, 29th Oct; Harrogate Theatre, 3rd Nov; Wycombe Swan Theatre, 8th Nov; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 11th Nov; Exeter Northcott, 17th Nov; Malvern Theatres, 26th Nov. For further details click here.

Xerxes, English Touring Opera, ETO, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, October 2011

11 October, 2011

Power and youthful passion are grist to the mill of Handel’s plots, and James Conway’s production is set on a World War II air base with Xerxes as the new ruler, whose enthusiasm for the Spitfire is matched by his infatuation for the lovely wartime nurse and singer Romilda. His brother, fighter pilot Arsamenes, is also in love with Romilda, and she and her younger sister Atalanta, both in love with Arsamenes themselves, are daughters of the military scientist Ariodates. His new bomb very nearly bounces on the stage when Xerxes grabs it in Act III, whooshing it around out of the grip of its inventor as if it were the great egg in Firebird, holding the heart of this ‘Barnes Wallis’-like magician.

Xerxes and Spitfire, all photos Richard Hubert Smith

Fantastical stuff, but using Nicholas Hytner’s modern translation it works rather well, and the singers shine with youthful energy. Jonathan Peter Kenny drives it all forward from the orchestra pit, and Julia Riley as Xerxes sings with wonderful clarity, portraying the king as a sleek-haired, pipe-smoking man who is quite sure of his own mind, yet rather facile in his passions. Rachael Lloyd sings with equal clarity as the foreign princess Amastris, who is promised to Xerxes, and her appearance as one of the foreign pilots seems entirely natural.

Arsamenes with Atalanta and Romilda

Setting the action in Britain, rather than Italy, Persia, or anywhere else, suits a composer who made England his home, and the backdrop showing part of the East Anglian coastline served the production well, imbued as it was with subtle changes of lighting, from reds to greens and blues. Along with occasional aircraft sounds and projections of their silhouettes, this simple production is a very effective backdrop for the singers, whose performances were of uniformly high standard. Laura Mitchell sang beautifully as Romilda, and she and Paula Sides as her sister Atalanta both gave fine performances, as did Andrew Slater, who was entirely convincing as their father the military scientist. Nicholas Merryweather added a distinctly disreputable touch as the rain-coated Elviro who flashes his ‘stockings from Paris’ to the ladies, and Clint van der Linde was a suitably masculine counter-tenor as the king’s brother Arsamenes.

Handel cognoscenti may regret some of the cuts, but the youthful energy of the singers gives a sense of urgency to the performance, bringing on the dénouement with admirable despatch. Romilda and Amastris are finally united with the men they love, and the world can move on — after all, there’s a war going on.

After a further performance at the Britten Theatre on Oct 13, Xerxes tours to: Buxton Opera House, Oct 21; West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, Oct 26; Lincoln Theatre Royal, Oct 31; Harrogate Theatre, Nov 5; Snape Maltings, Nov 12; Exeter Northcott, Nov 18, 19; Malvern Theatres, Nov 24, 25.