Grounds for banter

Giuseppe Verdi
La Traviata
Hamlet Trading Estate, Hackney Wick

W A Mozart
The Magic Flute
Garsington Opera

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 24 June

What do you need to stage an opera? Traditional wisdom has it that, in addition to singers, costumes, sets, orchestra and audience, you need a sizeable theatre, preferably purpose-built. Such wisdom is being questioned. A recent performance by the Crash Ensemble of Gerald Barry’s The Intelligence Park in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin is representative of an increasing desire on the part of companies to mount performances in spaces – such as art galleries or museums – where different habits of engagement prevail and where opera-house glitz doesn’t get in the way. This latter motivation is apparent, too, in a surge of operatic activity in London’s pub theatres, with a production of La Bohème at Kilburn’s Cock Tavern selling out a run of 126 performances last year and winning an Olivier Award, despite the perceived handicaps of an inexperienced cast, a prop inventory comprising a clothes-dryer and a laptop, and an orchestra consisting of a single battered piano. The troupe responsible has since pursued its mission “to bring opera to audiences who ordinarily might avoid it” in Islington’s King’s Head Theatre.

Another company called Go Opera has also taken up the baton, mounting a successful run of La Traviata in a modestly proportioned warehouse in Hackney Wick’s “Hamlet” industrial estate. The site was chosen, according to the programme, less for its Shakespearean associations than for its being a “rich ground in London for neo-colonial fetishistic ruin banter”. That said – assuming something is being said – the warehouse in question is not a ruin but a going commercial concern, counting Mr Chicken and Weldcentre among its thriving neighbours. The aim of the company’s founders Elly Condron and Dominic Kraemer, and that of the director of their first show, Rosalind Parker, has been to “allow the intensities of La Traviata and Hackney Wick to interact”.

What this amounts to in practice is the use of the mezzanine scaffold inside the warehouse – the Act Two confrontation between Germont and Violetta becomes a balcony scene – and the use of video footage, including some of Germont, dressed for a 1920s shooting party, on a bridge crossing the A12. Otherwise, the black tie, May ball-style setting was conventional enough, and the stage direction unusual only because of the moveable “fourth wall”. Audience members were among those invited to cocktails for Violetta’s party, while those seeking a quiet corner from which to observe matters as often as not found themselves inadvertently trespassing on Violetta’s country garden or, in my case, her bedroom.

Joanna Weeks starred as Violetta, giving a committed performance which displayed both confidence and dexterity in “Non sapete” and great subtlety in Act Two’s confrontation with Germont. And while bluster rather than subtlety was Alistair Digges’ chief quality in the latter part, elsewhere there was some commendable singing, not least from Elinor Jane Moran’s clear-toned Annina. All were accompanied by a pianist, with a solo violin to bolster the texture in the more melodic passages. The opera was squeezed into 90 minutes, with little harm caused to the dramatic pacing, leaving the audience plenty of time to soak up the work’s tragic dimension with a house kebab.

Neither 90-minute reductions nor kebabs have traditionally been on offer at Garsington, but judging from reports of the Jamie Oliver-branded catering at the company’s new home at Wormsley Park, home of Mark Getty, a discreetly parked kebab van might do a brisk trade. Abridgements, too, might gain in appeal if the new auditorium’s lacklustre inaugural production of The Magic Flute is anything to go by. Mozart’s paean to the fetishistic banter of freemasonry rarely makes for edge-of-the-seat drama at the best of times. In Olivia Fuchs’s directionless staging, even Jeremy Sams’s evergreen, gently comic translation failed to lift the flagging pace of the second act. The only tension came from a chill north-easterly breeze which blew across the stage, lending an unlooked-for intensity to the trials by fire and water. Pamina and Tamino’s enlightenment, for once, seemed a literal prospect.

Sophie Bevan, who captivated Garsington audiences as Susanna in last year’s Figaro, was the star of the show, rich and steady in the lament (“Ach, ich fühls . . .”), fading to a marvellously controlled, moving pianissimo in the repeat. William Berger also gave a strong performance as Papageno, wrong-footing his audience with a beautifully judged moment of sincerity when his threefold appeal for a mate – directed toward the audience – fell on deaf ears.

Bevan, Berger and Kim Sheehan’s Queen of the Night deserved their applause at the end. But I suspect an equal share of the audience’s delight was directed at the company’s management, who succeeded in raising £3.5 million during the course of a year in order to complete construction of the new 600-seat auditorium. Designed by Robin Snell, who worked on the Glyndebourne rebuild in the early 1990s, the resulting pavilion is clad in dazzling white sails and gives the impression of a graceful cruise-ship anchored in the broad and wooded slopes of the Wormsley estate. Though it lacks some of the ramshackle charm of its predecessor, the generously proportioned stage and superb acoustic are a vast improvement. A genuine pop-up auditorium, it will be dismantled come the end of the season – but, assuming Getty receives his next rent cheque, the next year should it see it pop up again for something rather better placed to demonstrate its many and significant advantages.

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