Opening Doors to the ‘Other Side’

In a previous post I mentioned that I thought I might be missing out in not having seen a variety of operas.  I’ve started making up for it.

The advantage of doing a community opera of the calibre of Blackheath’s is that you get to meet people who know a thing or two, and this helps you to decide to take risks.  So when Lewis Reynolds (Assistant Director on last year’s Elixir of Love) sent us a Facebook invitation to his latest production, The Telephone and The Medium at The Kings Head in Islington, I said yes without any hesitation.

I had already experienced and enjoyed Open Door Opera’s Iphigenia at the Scoop earlier this year, and wanted to support Lewis.  I even offered to take pictures (which I did, at a rather chaotic dress rehearsal).  I can’t listen when I’m taking photographs, so we came to the performance too.

The King’s Head is TINY.  I’m used to the Warehouse in Croydon, but this is even smaller, and an interesting way of experiencing opera – the front row are practically in the cast’s laps.

The operas on offer are both by Gian Carlo Menotti, who’s centenary falls this year.  And they could not have a greater contrast in content.

The Telephone is a two-hander: Ben, off on a long voyage has something important to impart to Lucy who is obsessed with her new telephone.  The work was originally produced in the 50s, but just as relevant today, how many times have you had a meaningful conversation interrupted by someone’s b#@@*y blackberry?  The joke is updated rather neatly, to incorporate new technology. It’s a slight piece but amusing, and if you can see the punchline coming from three seconds in, it hardly spoils the enjoyment.

Rebecca Dale as Lucy is excellent, especially when explaining to the friend she has phoned having got caught out in spreading malicious gossip (Well of course, I HAD to lie…!).  I have to say her coquettish bottom waving whilst dialling added nothing, and looked very silly, but she was awfully close…

Barnaby Beer as Ben was less impressive and sounded like he was nursing a cold, his voice died on him a bit, but he rallied and I very much liked the end when Lucy is giving him the number he has just called and he is repeating it number for number, I’ve never heard numbers turned into a love duet before.

The Medium is a very different kettle of porcupines, although it has its witty moments, it is far more serious, even sinister.  I was vaguely familiar with the story, which was apparently filmed at some point.

Catherine Carter and Alexandra Stevenson Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Madame Flora (known to her family as Baba – I’d like to think this is short for Baba Yaga) is a long time scammer, making money off the misery of bereaved parents for whom she stages séances.  Unfortunately it seems some of the ghosts she conjures up are more real than she would like, with devastating consequences for her family.

Baba is played with conviction and viciousness by Catherine Carter, striking in a mixture of chavesque sports pants and hoodie and ‘gypsy seer’ turban and shawl.  She can belt and she can wist, and most importantly, especially this close up, she can act.

Monica and Toby- Alexandra Stevenson and Daniel Ash copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Her daughter Monica is sung by Alexandra Stevenson.  She has a strong vivid voice, and the haunting creepy song she sing to comfort Baba really stayed with me, (as did the Mother, Mother are you there? riff sung variously as a ghost voice by whichever of the women wasn’t on stage at the time.)

Mrs Nolan and Mrs Gobineau copyright Cherry Potts 2011

There are some delicate cameos from the two grieving mothers, Cecilia Jane as Mrs. Nolan is the more expressive in terms of acting, but it is Michelle Cressida as Mrs. Gobineau who brought me almost to tears telling of the death of her toddler,

I didn’t hear a sound,
I didn’t hear…

the restraint of the librettist in leaving out the obvious rhyme echoed by the restraint with which she sing it.

The Gobineaus, Barnaby Beer and Michelle Cressida copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Barnaby Beer reappears as Mr Gobineau in a part which really doesn’t give him a lot to do.

This is a two act opera, and I felt that act I was much stronger than act II.  The story builds to its climax of the cold hand at the throat, and then it peters out a bit. It was a bit as though Menotti lacked the courage of his convictions.  I wanted more ghosts and less psychology.  I wanted to  know whose daughter it was singing Mother, Mother are you there… and to some extent Catherine Carter had made Baba so dislikeable that I didn’t care about her as she was being driven mad, although her breakdown was very convincing.  It’s altogether a bit Macbeth, your sympathy lies with those around the character who is falling apart, not with them.

Baba and Toby at loggerheads copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Daniel Ash got the rather strange role (especially for an opera) of Toby, a mute, and the butt of Baba’s anger.  This part didn’t quite convince me; and I felt that the end of the opera   was unsatisfactory, but that’s an issue with the writing as much as the acting, though A was more accommodating in her analysis!

Special mention for the piano playing of James Batty (the Medium) and Sarah Latto (the Telephone) for keeping the whole thing together .

An enjoyable evening out.

Oh, and Gay Times used one of my photos!

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