Monday, 28 July 2014

Tête à tête: The Opera Festival 2014 - Whisper Down the Lane, April in the Amazon, East O’ The Sun, West ‘O The Moon and The Fisherman’s Brides

 By Mary Grace Nguyen
Tête à tête: The Opera Festival has an array of newly made fringe operas, which are being showcased on their 8th year of bringing together the freshest opera talent from the UK and abroad.
This year includes 30 world premières - 100 of which will be celebrated at Central Saint Martins College (Kings Cross) with Pop Up opera performances taking place on the streets and cafes of Kings Cross.
Here is snippet of what I experienced on its opening night on the 24th July.
Performers in Catherine Kontz's Whisper Down the Lane
Promenade opera, Whisper Down the Lane is the creation of Catherine Kontz from DrawnForth Opera. It's a theatrical examination of news and Chinese whispers which begs the question do you believe everything you read?  
With use of old Gramophone tubes and speaking devices, including a typewriter, Kontz decided to concoct a playful opera that would give passer-byers a giggle. With up to fifteen performers, this casual opera will definitely get audience members wondering what the heck is going on? 
The first thing I noticed on the stage of April in the Amazon was how young the conductor, Timothy Burke appeared yet I soon realised this was ubiquitous throughout the Tête à tête programme.
Here, artists were either thriving in the opera world or brand new to it which is why Tête à tête is the ideal place to showcase new invigorating operatic works. 
April in the Amazon is an eclectic new opera with a strong group of instrumentalists called Chroma who decorate the stage with their Hawaiian flora prints. Composer, Laurence Osborn and Theo Merz, who wrote the libretto, presented five stories into this all-in-one performance, told by their cabaret opera singer, Loré Lixenberg. 
Lixemburg with Chroma and Timothy Burke
Lixenberg has a showstopper voice entirely needed for April in the Amazon. Her strength lies from moving up and down the vocal spectrum from the most gracious, provoking, and full pelt of screaming.
There are plenty of occasions where she has quick conversations and ramblings with herself on her character’s impulsive desires for caffeine and rushed impersonations of monkeys that were met during an expedition in the Peruvian jungle.
April in the Amazon is a mix and buzz kind of opera where no two seconds are the same. Even the libretto is twisted with funny lines, which coincide with the various stories told by Lixenburg whether it’s Marxist philosophy, lying on a hammock, deciding whether to drink an espresso or describing perverted sessions with a clinical psychologist.
In this bizarrely interesting opera, which includes an ounce of tonic, aggressive cello plucking, strumming of the violins and radical infusions of clarinets, flutes and typewriters, there is certainly something quirky about it that will give the audience a glance of where future operas are - possibly - going. 
East O’ The Sun, West ‘O The Moon is a splendid piece with the most romantic music formed by worksOpera: the brainchild of Anna Pool, James Garner and Sarah Sweet. They all met during their time at Guildhall School of Music & Dance.
It is based on a Norwegian fairy tale about a white bear (baritone, Joseph Padfield) that visits the home of the family (a poor wood cuter (Rick Zwart), his wife (Alison Langer) and daughter (Laura Ruhí Vidal)) unexpectedly. The bear offers the parents wealth in exchange for their daughter, which she wilfully accepts. The daughter journeys with him into a mystical world of trolls, fantasy creatures and mountainous castles and strives to save the bear and her love for him from the evil Troll Princess played by the counter-tenor Lestyn Morris.
Before the opera begins, cast members hold lanterns designed as if they were from another world with steel made installations with spiral detail to accompany them on the open stage. This lovely folk tale is reminiscent of a winters fable which children would enjoy. It is something I’d like to see again, perhaps with a larger audience.
The costume designs of the characters, particularly the hand crafted design for the bear, helps the opera in provided a transparent libretto that is intermingled with silly jokes and harmonious melodies which inspire feelings of hope and happiness.
The music had its own bespoke sounds to describe the presence of the big white bear through a humming cello and the wonderment of the daughter’s travels through the purity of a viola, celeste, guitar and flute all accompanied by violins that may lift you off your seat.
The orchestra with music director,  James Albany Hoyle at The Fisherman's Brides
Nineteen-year old composer and singer-songwriter, Lucie Treacher created The Fisherman’s Brides, which examines her curiosity for the Scottish Highlands and how its culture and people link themselves to the land and weather.
With a cast, mostly of female opera singers including Linda Hirst, Inês Simões, Caroline Kennedy and Emily Philips (to name a few), Treacher hopes to translate the lonely and struggling emotions of some of the fisherman’s girlfriends and wives ranging from various ages. Here, they express how they cope being away from their loved one who is out at sea.
The singing has a longing Celtic twang with music that combines contemporary, classical, Scottish highland, recorded sounds and music all together. These are recording from local environments such as sea waves, pebbles, farm animals and even a cameo appearance of a bagpipe as well.
Emily Philips in The Fisherman's Bride
Treacher, as director, composer and writer behind the libretto gives herself the challenge of attempted to execute all of these things thoroughly well however, unfortunately there were too many things going on.
It was hard to follow the overly ambitious music at times, which still managed to show areas of potential. The story line was also filled with too many parts from various wives, some of whom had voices that were hard to endure.
The stage direction was a bit fuzzy as well. Something simpler without the unnecessary barnyard animals may have made it exceptional. 

For a full list of shows, please go to their website  Or click here 

They are currently showing now until the 10th August.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre - An Emotional Rollercoaster with a fuzzy intrigue. **** [A personal review]

Miss Saigon’s massive promotional hype has sky rocketed box office sales since the first day tickets were released. There are, apparently, no longer any weekend seats available to see this internationally recognised musical at the West End. First premiered in 1989 and performed for a decade, the new and revived Miss Saigon production comes to the Prince Edward Theatre under the direction of Lawrence Connor.

As a fan of musicals and having visited Ho Chi Minh,  (or Saigon as it was once called pre-Vietnam War,) there were expectations to hear memorable and unbeatable numbers, see hints of Vietnamese paraphernalia, and get a smidgen of war history on the theatrical stage, yet only some of these parts were addressed. They were presented in varying levels of emotional intensity with a fuzzy intrigue about them. 

The emotional roller coaster span from the shockingly devastating conditions bestowed by the Communist regime and the hope and desperation felt by the Vietnamese people parallel to a romantic love story between a G. I., Chris (Alistair Brammer) and the heroine, Kim, who is sung by 18 year-old, Eva Noblezada, who is the star with a tremendous voice that resonated throughout the auditorium. 

Miss Saigon was originally influenced by Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, Madam Chrysanthemum (where everyone seems to have forgotten the composer’s name) and the 1958 musical film, South Pacific. The overarching and all encompassing theme from these influences lead to the most obvious; it is the divide between the West and the East with reference to what the historical academic, Edward Said once called ‘Orientalism.’ It’s the obscure interest the West had with Eastern culture despite considering them as the ‘other’ inferior and ignorant.  Yet, coming into the 21st century where this is, more or less, non-existent, Chris points out a popular belief held by thousands of Anti-Vietnam war protesters, at the time, that it was a ‘senseless fight.’ 

The show is a Boublil and Schönberg production that are the same artistic directors who gave us Les Misérables. They create jaw-dropping musical entertainment with solid political relevance, which are often depicted in a brutal and matter-of-fact fashion. One of the first opening scenes is set in a brothel where Vietnamese prostitutes gyrate and are thrown around like rag dolls by American soldiers. Here, Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi sings, ‘Movie in my mind’ with tears in her eyes. It’s a disturbingly provocative scene in addition to the ‘Bui Doi’ ‘dust of life’ song, which shows a video of the half Vietnamese and half American G.I children that were left behind as a product of war.

The most exciting scene that force hearts to rush at full pelt was the helicopter sequence, which revisited the same anxiety felt by Madam Butterfly languishing over Pinkerton. It is the same loneliness and sadness felt by the innocent. Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s stage design gave colour to such a bleak and war-torn story line but the music itself was most definitely classy with no gaps in between. Disappointingly, the lyrics never made an impression on my memory.

The conniving and, at times, clown-like character, the Engineer (Jon Jon Briones) has a delightful number,  ‘the American Dream’ which is possibly the only memorable song with its dazzling burlesque troupe, grand Cadillac entrance and glitzy statute of liberty head. Undeniably, there is a lot of experienced acting and singing dominating the stage. The production deserves credit for executing a revived classical show, which adds only a few up-to-date exceptions. 

Book your tickets HERE - It is showing until Spring 2015 until further notice

Monday, 7 July 2014

Jonathan Kent's 'Manon Lescaut' at the Royal Opera House with Set Designs by Paul Brown: Don't worry, I got it! ****

By Mary Grace Nguyen
Despite already made in two operas and ballet form, Puccini persisted in replicating his own opera, Manon Lescaut which was also based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost. It has been 30 years since Puccini’s version of Manon Lescaut has been performed in Covent Garden but the director, Jonathan Kent has just produced something that was all the more worthwhile. At its premiere in 1893 (in Turin) it was Puccini’s third opera, which received many great reviews yet unfortunately for Kent's production, some members of the audience were so disappointed that they felt the need to boo. 

In its simplest form, Manon Lescaut is the story of young girl that is sent to a convent on her father’s wishes whom Des Grieux falls in love with it. They both escape to Paris to be together yet once Des Grieux’s money runs dry Manon becomes distracted by Geronte's offer for a luxurious and wealthy life that she abandons him. Only later on does she realize - as part of her downfall - that Des Grieux is the man she loves, yet she tragically dies as they both try to escape to America.

In Kent’s version with set designs created by Paul Brown, it isn’t as rose tinted or straightforward, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Act 1 begins with two sets on one stage; gambling casino on one side and a semi American style holiday inn on the other; students dressed in modern day gear including Sponge Bob are milling around. Des Grieux (Jonas Kaufmann) dressed in a causal suit enters taking the female audiences’ breathe away with his male dominating tenor voice; he is shortly swept away by modestly dressed Manon (Kristīne Opolais) as he sings, Donna non vidi mai. Manon enters by being driven in by a people carrier; yes! an actual Mercedes made a cameo appearance at the Royal Opera House and her hypocritical brother, Lescaut,  (Christopher Maltman) has unethical, greedy plans for her sister to be sold off to Geronte (Maurizio Muraro,) a rich lascivious businessman. 

By Act 2, Opolais is no longer innocent but dressed in a tight fit, bust improvising pink corset with white stockings and a blonde wig; in a hot pink boudoir, she prances around flirting and teasing not only Geronte, but other old perverted men sitting in a row watching Manon like prey in some voyeuristic and debauched surroundings. The titillation is exacerbated by Manon straddling Geronte and Nedezhda Karyazina as a musician slash sex worker caressing Manon in order to indulge the fantasies of their audience. In Act 3, after Geronte catches Manon and Des Grieux together, he manages to give her to the police which leads onto another unsettling scene: women who appear like human traffickers are recorded on film as they queue and walk on a conveyer belt to be shipped off whilst being shoved around by an apathetic emcee. By Act 4, Manon’s hair is in tangles, her corset is no longer fluffy and pristine but tattered as Des Grieux drags her up what looks like a grey, deserted and broken fly over where she dies in his arm having sung, ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata.’ Not a pretty picture is it? Kent however, is adamant that he has conveyed Puccini's opera in a way that will bring the audiences' attention to what the composer was alluding to when he decided to re-create Manon Lescaut, which had already been made in different guises by Jules Massenet and Daniel Auber.

Puccini once said: "Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public…A woman like Manon can have more than one lover." When he compared himself to Massenet’s Manon, he said, ‘I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion." Manon Lescaut is an intriguing character because she is entirely human; she is frail, wreckless and easily swayed by luxury. Only in Act 2 when she gets bored in in quelle trine morbide and realizes how unsustainable materialism is in securing happiness does she withdraw and long for Des Grieux’s love. With Brown’s set designs and Manon’s flirty lap dancing for the seedy Geronte, it appears to project - perhaps - the same awkwardness and dissatisfaction felt by Manon to the audience in that the scene itself is so obscene that Manon presents the ludicrous situation of finding herself being objectified. Her capriciousness and fickleness from wanting Des Grieux to wanting riches and then no longer wanting it is tremendously alluring that it enhances her attractiveness to the audience - both on stage and off. Kauffmann said, ‘It’s horrible to imagine a man falling for her [because if you do] you’re absolutely screwed!’ This is conveyed the most when Manon unashamedly argues with Des Grieux about finding her jewels before they leave, which leads her behind bars.
Opolais’s Manon is a beautifully spoilt violet that lucidly shows her digression and physically exhausting journey towards her impending death. Her voice was just right for Kauffmann who she said helped and made her ‘want to sing better’; their voices put together were incredible. Kauffmann seems to sound better each time I see him; his voice is something to admire and for this performance alone, I believe he has earned his stripes; someone should give him the role of Calaf which he so deserves.
Maltman who also plays a sergeant of the royal guards in Act 3 portrayed two very different characters in great clarity; the first as a laissez faire realist and another as a sympathetic fella; his voice didn’t fail him either. Muraro as a filthy rich and lecherous fiend succeeded in making an audience find him distasteful which is quite the polar opposite of his latest role as a harmless and cheerful philosopher, Don Alfonso at the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Cosi Fan Tutti. And Benjamin Hulett, as Edmondo proved that even tenors with scruffy hair in green anoraks that dance around street poles can sing very well.
Antonio Papanno, the conductor, showed his sheer passion for Puccini’s work by extrapolated the musical score and tying it in neatly with the singers (Kauffman and Opolais) way of singing and the lyrics. In the behind-the-scenes footage (provided by the Royal Opera House), Opolais explains how it's in the ‘small phrases’ that have a massive influence on the opera itself. Pappano said of Puccini’s work that, ‘[it] is often done with great splashes of passion… but it’s more than that. It has to be balanced by refinement; the passion has to be true, the tragedy has to be true'. The orchestra played immensely and beautifully; one could tell that Papanno wanted to pay homage to Puccini by conducted Manon Lescaut with inspiration. 

There are moments in the Manon Lescaut where you can hear glimpses of songs that would influence Puccini’s later operas particularly in the Intermezzo in Act 2; one can hear similar melodies that induce the same emotions in La Boheme, Tosca and Madam Butterfly.

Brown's stage design and Kent's overall production irritated some opera-goers but, why is that? Perhaps they expected 18th century period costume or something a bit more mythical and easy on the eyes. Yet what is wrong with realism? What’s wrong with seeing opera in a contemporary setting that may provoke? I have read a few reviews that have said that the music did not coincide with the production set but I disagree. No matter how bleak a stage or scenario, no matter how cheesy or sumptuous, it is still human emotions, which is felt -more or less - in the same way. There was a certain warmth and depth emitted from both Opolais and Kauffmann which Puccini’s music entitled them with. The stage setting didn’t put me off whatsoever, in fact, the striking and controversial sets and props challenged me; I found myself asking questions about what Kent was trying to imply here and there yet it didn’t take me too long to realize his creative thought process which I completely understand. My only quibble however, is that some of the audience members couldn't see the last act, which was on an elevated fly over and the best scene out of the entire production, in my opinion

For more information on the production at the Royal Opera House, please click here
Last showing of this production was July 7th 2014

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Merry Opera Company's Kiss me, Figaro at The Scoop

Kiss Me, Figaro performed at The Scoop (back in June) was a combination of various musical art forms including opera, musicals, jazz, dance choreographies and some interesting costume designs. Although, the newest production of Merry Opera Company, Kiss Me, Figaro performed world-renowned arias and musical pieces from as far back as 400 years ago. The amalgamation of theatre, love, comedy, drama and of course, a happy ending was outstanding - it's unbelievable that such a show was free to view. John Ramster, Kiss me, Figaro's director said that he was influenced by his curiosity and intrigue of the backstage life in film such as, Kiss me, Kate! and operas such as Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor to bring together the story of two opera singers, Daisy (Jenny Stafford) and Joe (Thomas Elwin), and their complicated romance in the midst of an small touring opera company, funnily enough.

The introduction with the overture of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro was comical considering the use of all the singers voices to replace an absent orchestra.  Teresa Pells and Kathyn Walker in the gala scene was an exquisite duo accompanied by the 
witty and creative voices of Tristan Stocks and James Williams. Stocks even ran out to the audience dressed as a cherubic cupid. Allistair Ollerenshaw, who acted as the gay baritone engaged in humorous risque acts with Daisy, impressed the audience with his deep lavish timbre. Kirstin Finnigan looked lovely dressed up as a school with pigtails as part of the Mikado scene and somehow perked up Joe with great musical numbers including, 'All my eggs in one basket' and 'Love is the sweetest thing.'

Elwin played the part of the terribly unreliable boyfriend but was easily forgiven by his experienced tenor voice as a remorseful Rodolfo. Stafford's resounding voice woke up a few heart strings in the audience as Mimì from La bohème  The famous 'O soave fanciulla' aria sang by the on-stage couple was performed passionately and like something I had seen from a grand opera institution, in my opinion. 

The gang put together were inspirational and grabbed the attention of all members of the audience from young kids, people passing by, operagoers and even those new to opera. I managed to drag a friend to the performance who at first had her reservations but ended up enjoying the show more than she had expected.

Merry Opera Company was founded six and a half years ago and has 216 performances which has captivated more than 33,000 people across Greater London and Southern England. Their goal is to open up opera to a broader audience and provide an avenue for up-and-coming opera professionals to train and develop talented singers; this has included over 150 performers. Yet, Merry Opera Company has an added twist, which although includes the operatic art form, creates adaptations that are catered for [people who want] 'a good night out at the opera' not 'a night at the opera - and it's good for you'. 

Despite how small and young the Merry Opera Company are, they were nominated as best Off West End opera and toured Malaysia in 2012 due to their successful experiment of the classical opera, Verdi's La Traviata. They also stunned audiences with their unique stage version of Handel's Messiah which has been performed since 2011. In future, I hope to attend more Merry Opera Company productions as I also believe in the ethos that opera and classical music is something that should be shared and enjoyed by all. 

For more information on the Merry Opera Company, please go to their website:

'Let The Right One In' at West End's Apollo Theatre: Gore and visually striking scenes never light on human emotion ****

The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Let the Right One In was presented in London at the Royal Court Theatre from November 2013. Following this, John Tiffany’s production of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel and screenplay was adapted by theatre director, Jack Thorne and transferred to the West End. 

Let the Right One In is an intriguing mix of childhood innocence, love and fantasy vampire stories yet in this cold-blooded production, it proves to be more than just a thrilling horror show. Audience members are treated to drama, fantastic contemporary music and scenes of unexpected shock. Yet they are also exposed to something even more refreshing that is not often observed in recent theatre shows but more in musicals: contemporary dance performances.  

Rest assured, viewers have plenty of opportunities to jump off their seats to gore and visually striking scenes however, the show itself is never light on human emotion: childhood innocence and loneliness are experiences we are all too familiar with which is perhaps why Let the Right One In received multiple positive reviews from critics and theatre newbies. 

Oskar (Martin Quinn,)  a young teenager is often bullied by boys at his school. A growing number of killings have been taking place in his neighbourhood, which the town is made aware of, yet against his mother’s (Susan Vidler) warnings, Oskar goes outside fearless. As he wanders and plays on his own, he meets Eli (Rebecca Benson), a girl who had just moved in next door. They develop a friendship, which blooms into a young puppy love, but as Oskar becomes closer to Eli he realises that she is more than just a girl she feeds on blood.  

Benson exhibits the persona of Eli as a girl trying to understand herself in the body of a vampire. She sucks the blood of victims without thinking of the consequences but with Oskar she is entirely different. When Oskar offers to make a pact, he cuts his hand and offers it to Eli, which she aggressively pushes away from, fighting against her deeper vampiric appetites.

Benson gives a moving performance that makes her the centrepiece of the show. We see her adapt in various shapes and forms from a naïve girl to brutal murderer and monster, which send shivers down our spine. 

Quinn displays the woes of growing up as a teenager through Oskar who encounters being bullied, struggles with the notion of love and deals with abandonment. He accompanies Benson in showing childhood naivety in its purest form, which exudes moments of happiness, carefreeness and longing. 

Olafur Arnauld provides brilliant music to delightfully choreographed dances; dances which express feelings just as potent as words. Christine Jones manages to bring together a water tank onto the stage for a shocking death scene, which Eli manages without having to lift a finger. 

If you fancy being surprised and do not mind seeing plenty of blood spill, this show  should be on on your 'next theatre performances to see' list. I promise you won't get any nightmares either.  

Let the Right One In is showing until 30th August 
Click here to buy tickets from the Apollo Theatre now 
Or have a look at Nimax Theatre for more information