Thursday, 23 December 2010

Cinderella - Opera Up Close, King's Head Theatre

If you're looking for a (fairly) clean alternative seasonal show Opera Up Close's Cinderella is as good a proxy panto as any. This third production from the company that struck fringe gold with La Boheme repeats the magic formula of a vernacular translation and a scene set in the front-of-house bar.

My enthusiasm is qualified though. Whilst the theatre is a good venue for theatrics, it might not be such a good space in which to stage opera. There's no acoustic at all, which may have its advantages in the high-speed, text-intensive 'patter' stretches of Rossini's concoction but denies the sound itself any room in which to breathe. Given the theatre's trumpeted re-branding as London's Little Opera House this may suggest a hazardous settling period ahead.

However, it's nice to be able to say that on this occasion (and with the cast that I saw) hazards were circumvented and demands largely met. Christopher Diffey's Prince took some warming up but by the time we hit the first dedicated recitative the voice was operating at a premium, easy and (rather like his character's namesake) charming. Because of the nature of the space this is the hardest role of the event, with fearsome high notes popping out. Diffey undertook them with a base-jumper's courage, missing not a single top C. The stepsisters also run about these oxygen-starved peaks of the score. Emily Ward and Sian Cameron were exemplarly in dovetailing their singing with strikingly characterised roles (the second time I've seen Cameron do this in as many months).

For all that Cinderella is, particularly in this production, an ensemble piece, it still requires a titular heroine to lead from the front. Rowan Hellier's was the only voice to truly defy the flat acoustic, flooding the back of the room like a sparkling wine. For all that she sounded (and, transforming into a credible princess, looked) the part, by the end I found myself admiring Tom Bullard's Dandini above all. Dandini is a classic baritone-compere role, teasing the wit out of each situation, cueing up the drama and the jokes, and directing the laughter. Bullard's leavened his tone to accommodate the text, never fighting the room but working within it. With its clean attack his singing was also the fairy dust that brought the male ensemble together, along with Tom Kennedy's Alidoro and the hugely enjoyable buffo-bass of Gerard Delrez's tax-dodging father Don Magnifico. The most stoic performer was, naturally, the piano-as-orchestra of Andrew Macmillan.

If the idea of Opera Up Close is to find the irreducible heart of lyric theatre and re-package it for an unassuming modern audience then this is probably the way to do it. There are collateral losses though. Not only is the acoustic unforgiving, it also inhibits pursuance of the style which is also an irreducible component of early-to-mid 19th century dramma giocoso. This is a issue for the singers to confront alongside the company that casts them. I do look forward to the future of music theatre in this venue though, as the companies that use it grasp the nettle of its shortcomings as equally as its opportunities.

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