Eugene Onegin – third production rehearsal – arrival of the principals!

A swelteringly hot Sunday and I’m very glad that the rehearsal has been moved to the morning, and to Brooklands school, where the doors of the hall are flung wide onto a very pleasant square shaded by a vast tree – Thank you Brooklands!

Lensky: Nicholas Sharratt copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The Principals have arrived, and so has the poster.  We’ve worked with Nick Sharratt before, on Elixir of Love and he’s a lovely man, and a fine singer (and he knows how to fall too- he scared everyone half to death last year thinking Grant Doyle’s staged punch had actually landed).

Everyone else is new to Blackheath Halls.  Olga (Katie Slater) who is still a student at Trinity, plays her as eager and puppyish and easily led, and gets proper vexed with Lensky over the duel – Vladimir, stop your quarrel delivered with a stamped foot and shrug of frustration.
Olga and Lensky Rowing Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Onegin: Damian Thantrey copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Nick Sharratt as Lensky manages to alleviate the impression of sulkiness by giving him an innocence and wounded incomprehension at Olga’s behaviour, and Onegin’s meanness, which tips over from indignation into anger.  Damian Thantrey as Onegin is very much going for the Mr Darcy angle; everything is beneath him.

Today’s schedule takes us through our involvement in Act II and fits in what the principles get up to.  If I’m honest, from a chorus point of view, it’s less than perfect, we forget cues pay no attention to tempi, and lose notes; and we (the tenors)  all in turn sing the wrong words on the repeat of This is Superb.  There are definitely points still when I hear a cue coming and have no idea what it is I’m meant to sing- and this is the bit I thought I’d learnt.

Tatyana: Kate Valentine copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Acting wise, most people in the chorus are just walking through their parts, maybe it’s the heat, or the ‘done it already’ mentality seeping in, but there isn’t the verve or commitment to the parts we’ve already ‘acted’. Part of the problem is there are a lot of people missing today, so people are deputising for key roles (mainly involving moving chairs for the Cotillion, which we try at least 5 times without getting it done neatly and in time; this is a feature of a Harry Fehr production, moving furniture: last year it was tables, and I had to bow out of that bit.) it could also be that the venue is small and we don’t have room to fling ourselves about as we might otherwise.  It is very frustrating, especially when there’s Katie and Damian acting away like mad, and Panos quite bringing a tear to my eye as M. Triquet wisting after Tatyana (almost another missed cue.)  If I didn’t know we always pull it together at the end, I’d be quite worried.

However, new bits of business help, and little things: like people having to budge up the bench to make room for Larina (Harriet Williams), and A’s admonishing Shh! to Olga when she laughs at M. Triquet, give me encouragement.

We weren’t asked for a mark out of  10 this time, I think I’d give us (chorus) a 6 and the principles 8.  We will be fine, though there are some anxious mutterings about the difficulty of learning Act III, which we haven’t touched dramatically yet.

Three rehearsals in a row coming up, Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.  That should consolidate everything nicely.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Open Door Opera – Iphigenia

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A hot summer saturday evening by the river, the ideal moment for a bit of opera. I’d spent the day at a workshop on writing for young adults, and A, slogging over her book, so we were glad to be going out, and even more glad to be in the open air.  We planned to come to this show last week but ran out of energy after a rehearsal (and I’d remembered the time wrong, and it felt too much, so we left it and kept our fingers crossed it wouldn’t rain this week) so here we are sitting in the shade on ncushions we remembered to bring, having met up with Mona and waved at Lewis, waiting for the show to begin.

Open Door Opera are very much attuned to the absurdity of this prequel to the Trojan war, their chorus of Muses Servane le Moller (who plays the accordion, the sole musical instrument) Catherine Carter, Katie Slater, Joanna Harries, Danae Eleni and Alexandra Stevenson are chaotic and haphazardly dressed, running into the audience in search of costumes and giving the back story: apple, goddesses, most beautiful woman, abduction, war; at top speed before we settle into the action, and (relatively speaking) seriousness.

This show is loosely adapted from  Euripides, Racine and Gluck, by Lewis Reynolds.  I had expected a standard early music opera but in fact a lot of the script is spoken rather than sung. I’ve never read either Euripides nor Racine, and at times the language practically shouted translation!! (does my memory mean less to you than my life particularly smacked my ears) and its easier to hide that kind of thing in music but a lot of effort had gone into make it make sense, or as much sense as the story can make, because the fundamental problem with Iphigenia is that it is infuriating as well as tragic.

Agamemnon, brother of the cuckolded Menelaus, has gathered a vast army to sail to Troy, but the wind is wrong and won’t change.  If he doesn’t sail, the army will turn on him and his land and people, they have been promised plunder and they’ll have it, in Troy or here, they aren’t that bothered.

Agamemnon asks the gods for guidance and they demand a sacrifice: his daughter Iphigenia.  He sends word that Iffy (as her mother calls her) is to marry Achilles, to get her to come to the port, then has a change of heart and sends another letter (that does not reach her) saying Achilles has changed his mind.  Iffy arrives, with maidenly escort, and Mum, Clytemnestra, all pleased and excited.  Agamemnon grits his teeth and plays along, but then the messenger arrives, and gives her the second letter.  Iffy rows with Achilles, who cottons on to what’s really happening and has a rather ineffectual go at Agamemnon.  Agamemnon comes clean to Iffy, who eventually understands the cleft stick he is in, and agrees to be sacrificed. 

There is no getting round that “the gods’ will it” fatalism, and it does make all the human protestation seem rather puny, particularly when fighting against circling helicopters, tiresome teenagers and an imperfect outdoor arena.  (Mind you, excluding helicopters Euripides probably had the same issues, so I suppose it’s authentic.)  The Scoop has a reasonable acoustic but when the action went up onto the edge it might as well have been the other side of the river.

There are several strong points in this production:

David Durham’s Agamemnon:  Durham can act, and has quite a presence. He made a believable general and doting father, and has a good strong voice, more than equal to the difficult circumstances.

The muses: by turns absurd, threatening and disturbing.

Clytemnestra being played by several members of the cast.  I wasn’t quite sure about the wheelchair, but it did imply the powerlessness the queen feels in the face of her husband’s perfidy and cruelty.  Played initially by one of the young men, (who later takes a turn as Achilles, another role that’s shared out) as an excited but overbearing mother planning a wedding, as the story unravels and the truth is revealed, the role is taken on by David Ryall, who rages and glares as she realises what has been planned for her daughter, and finally by one of the muses, catatonic with shock and grief, as Iphigenia, in a state of teenage nihilism masquerading  as heroism, steps up for slaughter.  I really think this was a brilliantly thought out bit of casting, and gives the whole piece some weight, as it gives Clytemnestra centre stage, and foreshadows the doom awaiting Agamemnon ten years later when she finally gets her revenge.

The music.  I love Gluck, and the muses sang beautifully.  I also thought that the accordion worked extremely well to fill in for an entire orchestra.  I would happily have had more of the music and less speech.

Open Doors Opera work on the assumption that Opera works in any venue.  While this did work, there were longeurs while (I assume) the cast waited for someone to be in the right place in the vast space.  I would like to see it again, in a more intimate space, where the cast could relax a bit about being heard.

copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Rats in the Shadows

Our second night out in a row.  I recall saying about a month ago that we would have no social life while rehearsing Onegin, it has turned out not to be true – tired, yes; frantically busy, yes; but going all sorts of places.

This is where being part of the community opera pays off, you get to hear about, and want to experience, things that might otherwise pass you by.  Liz and Judith, fellow members of Blackheath Chorus alert us to their involvement, and it went into the ‘if there’s time bracket’ until I read the flier properly, looked at the dates and thought, “oh why not, Shoreditch is easy now we’ve got the overground,” and convinced A that we could fit it in.

How glad I am we did.

We are Shadow is a new work by John Barber and Hazel Gould, and tells the story of Toby (Robert Anthony Gardiner), who has a shadow which he doesn’t know to appreciate, and Rattus Rattus (Adam Green) who has looked up, seen the sun and fallen in love with the idea of shadows, and how RR steals Toby’s shadow and the consequences for all involved.  The Rats & Shadows idea attracted me, being fond of myths, as regular readers will know(!)

The production was part of the Spitalfields Music festival, at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. (I once tried to visit this church with my Gran when we were doing our tour of all the churches on London, it was locked so it was an additional pleasure to finally see inside.)

Because we changed our minds about which night we were going it was a last minute booking and we ended up in the gallery, which gave restricted views unless we stood up and leant over, which upset the stewards, but we didn’t care, we wanted to see.

On entering the church we were encouraged to take a circuit of the building and take in the soundscape, and the nests of child-rats hissing at us from piles of crates with glee.

The Shadow, brilliantly, and silently, danced by Krystian Godlewski , dressed in subtly darker but identical clothes to Toby follows him like an eager dog or lovelorn jester, copying and exaggerating his every move, capering away and back, leaning at crazy angles, making suggestions for stories as Toby struggles to find creativity at the end of the corporate day, in his lonely apartment.  With great ingenuity the Shadow is voiced by 5 of The Sixteen: Katy Hill Stuart Young, David Clegg, Sam Boden and Kirsty Hopkins, in multilayered refracting harmony and dissonance which sound difficult to do, and absolutely glorious.  I could listen to this all day, I hope it is recorded at some point.

Rattus R. and the baby-rats come to steal the shadow, and Toby, terrified out of his wits, gives it to them. Toby’s squeak of ‘NO!’ when RR asks if he is scared, is pitch perfect; denial, bravado and terror in one syllable.

The rats squeak and scuttle most convincingly, it’s all in the movement, as the only concession to costume is wearing black, and knitted hats with ears attached.   Two in particular had got the dainty belligerence just right; having taken live young rats away from my cats on many occasions, I have had opportunities to observe these warriors of the rodent world more closely that I entirely wish to!

Vocally the Rats were good too, fearless and tuneful and threatening (we’ll set a trap on you – a theme apparently written by one of the children), there was an additional chorus of rats not taking part in the action to add weight at crucial moments.  I did feel however that the hand movements incorporated into the rat songs weren’t entirely successful, possibly instigated to help them learn the words? It didn’t look quite ratlike enough.

The stolen shadow fades and repines (without him I am nothing), but is given new strength by dawn and light through a grating into the rats’ underground home.  This was one of the most moving moments in the show, the 5/16 gathering around the Shadow like beams of light singing his thoughts, brought tears to my eyes.

Meanwhile, Toby sets off for work as usual, stops to chat to the girl he always buys his coffee from (Fiona Marris), and is not recognised… by her, or by the security machine at work.  Without his shadow he has no identity, and is cast adrift.  He begins to realise he’s in trouble.

The commuter scenes are a delight, once again the movement is spot on; trying to make your own space on crowded tube, the reluctant bustle.  The Spitalfields Singers Community Chorus have an excellent clean sound (if we sound as good for Onegin I shall be very pleased) and are given a lot of fun things to do, being the machine rejecting Toby at work (Access Denied!!), shrieking with horror, when Toby asks if anyone has seen his shadow (Rats? Here?!) and my favourite, singing their voice mail messages while they relax in the park over lunchtime  (I am away from my desk).

The evocation of the cityscape is supported by massive photographic banners which are raised and lowered by ‘construction workers’ to indicate whether the action is on street level or below.  The construction team also arrived in response to the screaming commuters’ fear of rats, proudly bearing a wholly inadequate mousetrap complete with cheese.

Musically a small ensemble play crisply and wittily under the direction of, an excellent conductor Natalie Murray, who oozes calm and authority.  I particularly like the use of accordion (Rafal Luc), especially when the machine rejects Toby’s security pass, an indignant wheezing note is a surprisingly graphic rendition of rejection.

The Shadow rebels at being treated like a slave by R Rattus, and runs away, trying to find a way home to Toby.  Toby, wandering about cast out of his life, hears the Shadow calling him and goes down into the sewer to rescue him. Rattus reveals that he believes he has no shadow, and encouraged by Toby goes out into the sun, and meets his Shadow, danced by Irene Cioni with spiky grace.  They dance together in excitement in a charming pas de deux of flamenco and goodness knows what else.  Toby and shadow go home to a life filled with creativity and mutual appreciation.

Movement was incredibly important to this piece, well observed, ingenious and integral, and seemingly not choreographed by a specific person, so presumably down to director Mia Theil Have, or the dancers and ensemble. Take a bow whoever you are.

We are Shadows is a charming, delightful, humorous, engrossing, moving, TRIUMPH.

You can see a tiny snippet of the production in rehearsal here.

copyright Cherry Potts 2011

midsummer music… and dancing

We’ve had a busy few days celebrating midsummer with music of all kinds. 

Thursday night Jon Boden celebrated the end of a year of folk songs in his A Folk Song a Day project with a gig at Cecil Sharp House.  I have listened to every one of the songs, though not every day, tending to gorge every week instead, and what a delight it has been, apart from anything else its made me feel very knowledgable as I know at least 3/4 of the songs Jon has recorded, and in the main I’ve been glad to be introduced to the rest.  And it looks like the project is continuing past its 365th edition, which is good news.

There was definitely an air of celebration about last night, significant numbers of the audience were in silly hats, the hall was decorated with bunting and the evening kicked off with Hammersmith Morris, who, whilst hampered a little by insufficient room (which led to one man having to dance backwards up the built-in seating round the edge of the room)and the risk of strangling themselves on the aforementioned bunting, gave a fleet-footed, muscular showing.  They swished their hankies like they were sabres, and dueled in slow motion with sticks and jumps and footwork. Audience and C# House staff assisted in raising the bunting out of harms’ way, including a vision in vintage pink dress, holding the flags away from fire risk from the lights with a parasol made entirely of flowers, like a young, colourful, and much less stern version of Mary Poppins.

Something about morris men: they can’t creep in surreptitiously to leave their bag of sticks ready, the bells rather give them away; and it’s wise to ensure those bells are tied on tight, I noticed on guy tangle the ties from one leg in the bells of another – nearly a nasty accident. 

They danced outside in the drizzle during the interval (Follow the noise, JB says leaving the stage) and danced their way back in for the start of the second half, causing the wheelchair user chatting to friends in the aisle to go into rapid reverse – they weren’t stopping for anyone. Comments were made about the slipperiness of the floor making some of the faster dances a bit hazardous, I’d have thought as the national centre for folk dance C# house would have thought of that! 

I believe some people think Morris dancing is an acquired taste.  It can be pretty silly, but done with committment and energy it has a strange beauty and can even be a bit unnerving; it has the same quality as Terry Pratchett, when he looks sideways at you and says something serious amongst all that glorious inventive hokkum that is the logic of Disc World.  In fact I’m sure if there isn’t an active Ankh Morpork Morris side it’s only because they are in hiding after some political faux pas that has drawn unwelcome attention from the patrician… That’s a digression and a half, sorry, back to the gig.

The singing was shared out with Jon Boden taking the lion’s share, but with the occasional handover to Fay Hield , Peta Webb, and The Cecil Sharp House Community Choir. (Ms Webb’s contribution was in doubt for a while, courtesy of an over stiff lock in the ladies, fortunately the audience are a resourceful lot and got her out.) 

The Community Choir were a little polite for my taste, apart from their opening shanty which had sufficient oomph. I think they suffered from the arrangements being over complex for folk songs, which neither need nor benefit from it.  They sang beautifully none the less, and there were some strong voices in there; it just needed a touch more vigour.

Peta Webb has startling orange hair, and I don’t know if this influenced the lighting crew, but she sang in a green spotlight, which made her look rather like the risen corpse in The Unquiet Grave, a variant of which, the Grey Cock, Fay Hield sang, the combination of her voice and a very effective bass drum set my hair on end. 

Peta Webb’s contributions included Lovely on the Water and a song the title of which I’ve never grasped, but has the quaint refrain: I bundled it beneath my apron, one of the best of many songs about concealed pregnancy.

Which leads me on to a tiny little gripe.  I’d say my knowledge of folk song is pretty good, and that yes, there are a lot of songs about incest, and a lot about young men murdering innocent young things, and they often have wonderful tunes… and it could be that having three contributors may have led to a lack of co-ordination in the sets, but: we got a disproportionate number of ‘psychopath apologia’ as I think of them.  Why do these songs describe the victim as the perpetrators ‘True Love?’…  gawd help the women they don’t like. 

The Remnant Kings have an eclectic set of instruments, there are dozens of fiddles on stands about the stage; the stage was also graced by two working Edison Standard Wax Cylinder Phonographs, and wine glasses filled with water; one song had an oboe solo of great magnificence.

The set began with Dancing in the Factory one of JB’s own songs, which was lovely, and one of several he sang that originate on Songs from the Floodplain, though I think, of them, this was the highlight.

Another regular appearance for the night was the combination of Rudyard Kipling and Peter Bellamy.  I don’t share JB’s enthusiasm for Kipling, he doesn’t know when to stop; however the version of Frankie’s Trade which was either double tracked or fed through those Edison phonographs was very effective.

The phonographs also supplied what sounded like vintage recording of bird song, and a strange wailing that might have been violin… I have to admit to rather liking it.

Another theme of the evening was songs with King Harry (or Henry) in them, and hunting songs, and indeed songs that managed to splice the two together, mostly supplied by Fay Hield, who has a lovely voice… although she doesn’t engage with the audience much.  On Folk Song a day she and JB do a duet of a version of the Three Ravens/Twa Corbies which is absolutely visceral.  I found her album a bit disappointing, but there’s scope there for her to be something very special with the right material.

The audience were given every encouragement to join in on chorus or refrain, and did.

High points were all provided by interesting musical interpretation which is one of Boden’s strengths, whichever of his outfits he is out with, in particular, Open your window done to an accompaniment of just percussion was brilliant, there’s something about that much percussion that gets into your body and takes over the rhythm of your breathing.

We could have (should have!) stayed for a singalong in the bar, but I’d been up since 4.30am, and it’s a tedious journey home so regretfully we left our friends to do the honours.

(Thanks for the tickets, Muireann, and for the photo, Jill.)

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Remnant Kings at Cecil Sharp House copyright Jill Barrett 2011

Roaming Round Romsey

I’ve been trying to create a montage of the glorious stone cats of Romsey Abbey, but no matter what  I do with it, I can only get half of them into the featured image at the top of the page, so here they are in their full glory.
11 carved stone cat faces

The Romsey Abbey Cat's Line Up Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

They leave me wondering whether the stone mason(s) working on the Abbey really liked cats, or definitely thought they were creatures of the devil, to have so many gargoyles look feline.  I fear the latter, but they are a formidable line up of humourous grotesques… I probably missed some higher up the building.

Romsey Abbey Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

So, what are we doing in Romsey? 

A and I always promise ourselves Fridays for pleasure: seaside or a walk or a garden if it’s fine, exhibition or historic building if not.  We have only been intermittently successful this spring/summer owing to illness, and other more pressing priorities.  It was several weeks ago that we managed this trip; I was still not up to a walk, it was blisteringly hot and I was desperate to get out of the house.

Romsey has been on my list for a while, I’ve always vaguely known that the Abbey was worth a look, and we discovered that A had ancestors there, which gave it further interest in a general sort of way.
In terms of a day out, it’s just about at our limit: two hours travel each way just about justified by what’s at the end of the journey.  Getting there was surprisingly easy by train and the station is an easy walk from the centre (unlike a lot of places!).

Romsey Library copyright Cherry Potts 2011

We discovered that Romsey is actually rather charming, and like its Abbey, has neither been ruined by neglect nor by over restoration.  On our way from the station we passed the library, housed in a pleasing red brick Arts & Crafts style building that had once been a school.  By the time we were in the centre of the town, I was muttering, “I think I could live here, let’s check the politics of the local council… do yo think these houses have much back garden?” Not that we’re planning on moving, it’s just a litmus test; like the occasional National Trust property we walk into and say, “Throw everyone out, send a carriage for the cats, we’re taking possession.” (Lindisfarne Castle and Hill House, Helensburgh; take a bow).

The two main streets are lined with attractive old buildings  and the corn exchange has been preserved as a bank.  On a sunny late May lunchtime, the streets were peaceful but anything but deserted, with a few market stalls operating, and the inhabitants extraordinarily friendly.  We got into conversation in shops, restaurants and on the street with all sorts without any initiative on our part.
There is a proper sweet shop, so I got myself a fix of aniseed balls.  (I love aniseed sweets. Twist for the sharp swift sugary rush, balls for slow release consideration – plus they always escape into the bottom of my bag and, being pretty much indestructible, can be a happy surprise weeks later). 
There are a lot of café/ tea shop/ pubs/ restaurants, though none stood out as the-place-to-eat.  The place we chose was disappointing in that it looked interesting and wasn’t, the dish I picked with care, for not mentioning cheese, arrived smothered in it; and A’s raspberry juice was actually some kind of cordial and so strong we had to water it down with half my Sicilian lemonade to make it drinkable; my own fault for not asking, and A’s for not complaining, but still, poor selling technique and service on their part.  If we went back I’d go for one of the purveyors of sandwiches and baked potatoes.
The other thing Romsey has in spades is charity shops, and pretty high quality too. I got a good haul of books and we also found several elements of costume for the opera; and they let us leave our purchases behind the till to pick up on our way home.
Garden with arch of roses

King John's Hunting Lodge, the garden. Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

 Probably the oldest building in the town (apart from the Abbey) is known at King John’s Hunting Lodge.  That guy must have been a prodigious hunter, his lodges litter the south of the country.  Romsey has documentary evidence that there really was a KJHL in the town, but archeology has proved that this isn’t it. Name not withstanding, it’s an interesting building, well interpreted, friendly staff, and it has a knucklebone floor (which I’d always imagined was a term for decorative flint work or something, but no, it’s actual cow knuckle bones ) and medieval graffiti, and satisfying windows that used to be doors, and windows that are now cupboards and so on, and a very pretty garden.

The museum next door (included in entry, more charming staff) is fairly typical how-life-used-to-be lived, but has two stand out exhibits, a recording on wax cylinder of local celebrity Florence Nightingale, sounding like Celia Johnson on speed having just been goosed; and a recreation of the hunting and fishing and general hardware shop that used to be here, complete with mannikin of the erstwhile owner which talked if you pinged the brass ‘attention’ bell.  The gent in question was an enthusiastic inventor of clever garden gadgets, and we had a whale of a time exploring his ideas, and the drawers of the shop which held everything from cheese graters to fishing flies.
The Abbey itself is very fine, preserved without too much intervention from over enthusiastic restorers, as the parish church.  It is mainly Romanesque and reminded me of Winchester cathedral, but lacks the dark, sinister, quality Winchester has, which consequently made it a good deal more attractive.  A number of the nave columns have a single foliage detail on the base as though a leaf has fallen from the more complex decoration at the top.  A nice touch.  The Abbey have a no commercial photography of the interior policy, and while this doesn’t really count as commercial, I’m not using my interior pictures.  There are some brilliant tombstones (I love tombstones, social history, art, intrigue and often humour all in one) from some ancient brasses to florid 18th Century brutes replete with cherubs and urns, but my two favourites were these:
A simple floor slab deeply engraved:
 Here lyeth ye body of Mr Tho
Warren. A learned pious
and faithfull minister of Christ
A solid Nervous assertor
of discriminating grace
and freed will Jan ye 27 1693/4.
Now then, what does that mean? A nervous assertor?  Discriminating grace? Freed will, as opposed to free will?  And why the two year dates? We didn’t move from Julian to Gregorian calendar until Wednesday 2 September 1752 (which was followed by Thursday 14 September 1752) so what’s that about?  Was there some issue about when the new year started, like not on the 1st january?  Surely by the 27th the year was well and truly launched?  Or was the tombstone carved so much later that no one could remember which year he’d died? Bizarre.
I get quite a picture of  Thomas Warren from those few words, probably completely wrong, but it keeps me amused.
The other high point tomb-wise is from 1658, and has a painted half-length  sculpted double portrait of John Sainte Barbe and his wife Grissell (not one of those antique names people like to resurrect, like Lettice, its apparent derivation gets in the way.)
Below the inscription are shown their children, a bundle of 4 cheerful, plump, slightly surprised moppets in red.  At first glance it looks like 2 girls and 2 boys, but the inscription says 4 sons, and given that their mother was only 22 when she died (the same day as her older husband) the implication is that the two youngest hadn’t yet been ‘breeched’.
There is extraordinary poetry on this inscription which is difficult to follow as it has been set out very oddly, it isn’t obvious which line you read after which, and culminates in an anagram on their names:
Be in shares, in Blest Glorie. 
This feels a bit shoehorned in, and I imagine a scholarly friend, perhaps the tutor of the eldest son, doing his best to meet a passing fad for cod mysticism with this rather paltry effort.  I’m saying no more on the poem, you should really go and read it yourself; but it reminded me of the title of an Ellis Peters detective book (not a Cadfael):

A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.


Title page of Elegy

Title Page of the Elegy

This brings me back to genealogy and A’s ancient ancestors.  This was a bit of a detective work too.

In the ‘broody box’ a metal cash box owned by A’s father, there was among various other family documents a printed Elegy in memory of a Mrs Dunn.
This is Dunn the gentlemans outfitter, though not that specific branch of the family, and rather earlier in the family tree.  Now, because it only mentions the initial of her husband, and her name not at all, it took a while to work out who she was.  The number of children left motherless was a further clue, and we had a death date, and age at death and we assumed she’d died in Trowbridge, Wiltshire.  However, the fact that the Elegy was printed in Portsmouth suggested a Hampshire link.
A bit of research found her first name to be Elizabeth.
Elizabeth married William Dunn in around 1782 and had six children, William Webb, Elizabeth Witt, Anne Parsons, Joseph Stephen, Maria and Benjamin (the family habit of using other family surnames as middle names is a godsend when doing research, the 1st daughter being called Elizabeth Witt really helped.) 
So with Witt as a possible maiden name, we checked out births in Trowbridge and couldn’t find her, so we back tracked to the Hampshire connection.  We eventually found that Elizabeth Witt was born in 1762 and died in June 1790, that she was the daughter of  Stephen Witt who died in Romsey in 1792, and his wife Elizabeth who died in 1804.  Our Elizabeth had a younger brother, Robert, born after the family moved to Trowbridge.
second page of elegy

second page of elegy

Another typical find: Elizabeth’s brother Robert married Mary Dunn, one of the cousins of Elizabeth’s husband William. This happens a lot in the Trowbridge woollen merchants of A’s family tree, the best example of this is a Mr John Cooper, marries a Miss Wilkins, and his father, also John Cooper, for his third wife then marries the youngest sister of his son’s wife.  That seems a bit over the top to me!  But what a great story there is buried in there.  Not bad from a document too coy to mention the actual name of the writer or the deceased.

So that’s why we were in Romsey.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Eugene Onegin 2nd Production Rehearsal

4 altos wait their turn

Sitting around watching... copyright Cherry Potts 2011

So we are upstairs and don’t have enough doors for our entrances and exits, and have to crunch against walls and pretend we aren’t there.  It’s hot and it’s raining, and there isn’t enough light for photographs; good job I took loads last time.

This is one of those rehearsals where there is a lot of sitting about waiting, watching other people do stuff.

Like: ‘fix’ the musical chairs so people know who loses in each round, but with only half the people needed actually there. This produces a surreal game with people flouncing away from empty chairs… Harry requests understudies as there have to be the right number of people hurtling round and round.

Like: play pass the parcel (I said, did I not, that it would be pass the parcel next? Prescient or what?) this is also a virtual game, with no parcel, and no children.

Ollie Platt & Harry Fehr miming copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Like: watching Lensky’s true character be exposed, as Harry throws Olga (Ollie, Again!) to the floor;

for by nature, she’s a devil who’ll cheat and betray.

All the poor girl does is play musical chairs.  That small act of petulant violence really explains why he won’t back down when Onegin tries to talk him out of the argument (I never meant to embarrass you); it really isn’t all Onegin’s fault for teasing him and going too far.

We work our way through the second Act with Nick once more singing all the principle’s parts while Ollie and Harry lip-sync and in particular his rendition of M. Triquet’s petite chanson is delicious, he has a lovely voice and I don’t know where he gets his energy.

In the break, Briony starts to hand out hired costumes.  (Carrie, I know you are reading this in France; she’s got yours!)

We move on to the quarrel, for which most of our lines are ‘muttered’ to each other from behind hands (or fans, for some) until the moment Lensky goes for it and denounces Onegin publicly (You seducer).

Suzanne is delighted to be asked to knock over a chair in ‘shock’, and does so with obvious enthusiasm, and various Basses leap in to separate the warring ex-friends while we all roar out

Otherwise there’ll surely be a scandal, a scandal

as though not a bit unhappy with the idea.  What it is to have ‘friends’ and ‘neighbours’.

Harry directing the action copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Harry lets us Tenors and Basses go early, so he can work on the Cherry-pickers song, with the Sopranos and Altos.

It sounded lovely floating down the stairs after us.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Eugene Onegin – 1st Production Rehearsal

Our first production rehearsal is six hours long.

Duncan Conducting

Duncan Conducting Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Nick is stuck on a delayed Eurostar, so Duncan is conducting from the piano, Bryony is poised with measuring tape to review costumes, Tom has collected flower pots, (which he later walks into and sends in all directions) baskets, cushions and a watering can, and the floor is marked in discreet black tape to show where the ‘verandah’ will be. We are introduced to Ollie, the assistant director, who has been working with the children; and to the stage management who will have a lot on their hands – good  luck ladies!

A in her Act I costume

Act I: Agricultural labourer Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

We get our costume efforts checked over.  Briony is thrilled by A, who is perfect apart from lacking a dress-shirt for act III.  She likes my act I shirt, and thinks Act II is my pièce de résistance, but Act III is pretty poor which I agree about; 40 charity shops and no tuxedos in my size! So she is going to hire my entire outfit for act III.

I show Tom photos of  plant pots and patchwork, and he looks a bit overwhelmed, so I leave them with him to decide what if anything he wants to use.

We have a quick warm up with Duncan, whom I neglected to mention in my last blog!  Last week he played the waltz scene with such verve, brio and élan (why is it the French have words for this and we don’t?) that it was all we could do not to dance… he fair played his hands off… anyway back to today:

Harry walks us through our first entrance.  This involves us crushing into a tiny space off stage (in the right order, with our baskets) and singing our heads off, then coming in, and arranging ourselves around the ‘garden’ while Larina (Harry, at this point)  thanks us for our song and sets up the corn husking contest.  This proves a bit harder than you’d think, because there really isn’t room and we can’t see our cue.  Fortunately by this time Nick has escaped from the channel tunnel and comes to make the crush even tighter.  We can only fit by holding the baskets length ways, which isn’t going to be possible when they are full of corn cobs… and there are 30 children to fit in yet.

Sopranos with baskets

Maggie & Sarah with Basket Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Simon Marsh, as Foreman leads the singing.  After the first try through the Tenors are asked to sing the first part of the song with our backs to the auditorium, as we are ‘particularly strong’ this year (i.e. twice as many as last year!) and to get on stage fast to give everyone a chance to be out of the hole when it’s their turn to sing.  It also means that all us Tenors are on stage when we start our bit, which is a darn good idea, it’s surprisingly exposing being the first or second on stage and having to start singing without the rest of your tribe in sight or hearing.

counting cobs copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The corn husking  is a riot, and a brilliant idea as The Miller’s Pretty Daughter is a mite cheesy unless there’s a reason to be singing it, and it makes the dreaded tra-la-la at the end into a kind of countdown, which I like.  we have a great time pretending to husk cobs, lay bets, urge on our favourites etc … the singing gets a bit lost, especially as we are getting adrift from our voice tribes again, I find myself entirely surrounded by Basses at one point, and lose the plot completely, as their part on one of the trickier phrases is so different I can’t figure out what I should be singing at all.  However at other points I am engrossed in the action and singing away without thinking about it; so I’ve obviously learnt more than I think.  I’m off the book, anyway – there are the occasional moments when I think:

 I know this is one of those all-on-one-note sections… I wonder which note…

Women Dancing

Stella & dancer copyright Cherry Potts 2011

This is followed by some faffing about with glasses of lemonade by the ladies of the house – Ollie, Harry and Nick, multi tasking as Larina, Olga, Tatyana and Filipyevna, Nick singing all the parts and Harry and Ollie miming.  Then we head off to the ‘kitchen’ and end of our involvement in Act I.


Our action in Act II starts with us ‘sneaking’ into the garden to set up the surprise party for an unappreciative Tatyana.  By now we have shed our agricultural worker personas and are Larina’s friends and neighbours, and Tatyana is moping over her broken heart.

Stella Howard and some of the dancers have joined us, and they are the focus of the argument between the hunting enthusiast gents and their ladies:

Bass being pushed around by Alto

the stag & the hare David C being put in his place Copyright Cherry Potts

That ‘makes a nice change from the stag and the hare,’ is distinctly ribald now, and ‘that’s all our menfolk consider amusing,’ an excuse for the Altos to push the Basses around.

Harry calls a halt which my table of old codgers (sorry, Tenors and Basses) pay not attention to and we are complimented on our knowledge of the score.

Cake is eaten (Of course!)

Onegin (Harry) insults Tayiana (Ollie) again, with his choice of birthday gift, to a chorus of reproving Altos.

The younger ladies get a chance to flirt with the military (David Matthews), and then lead a conga, and hail to music is realised as a kind of dignified okey-cokey.

M. Triquet (Panos) copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The cotillion is transformed into a game of musical chairs, much to the delight of those playing.  Harry is having fun with the idea of Tatiana being a child still on some levels, I’m astonished we aren’t doing pass-the-parcel; or maybe we haven’t got to that yet.

Monsieur Tricquet (Panos Ntourntoufis) arrives and sings his petite chanson to Tatiana (Ollie again),
with  many a wistful look and roll of eye.  Ollie (sorry, Tatiana) is unmoved, but we tell Panos that his singing is delightful with complete sincerity.

Musical Chairs getting riotous

The Cotillion reimagined as a game of Musical Chairs, great fun for the participants! Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Quite early on this morning Nick declared that we have another Blackheath Halls Community Opera Triumph on our hands.

I think he might be right.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011