Category Archives: Opera

Review: The Okavango Macbeth

The second of the university performing groups on my list this season.

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FRINGE RUN: 12/8-18/8 @ 21:30; Spotlites @ Merchant’s Hall [£9.50/£8.50]

Who, Where and When: Edinburgh Studio Opera; Spotlites @ Merchant’s Hall; Wednesday 14th August 2013, 9.30pm

The Show

This is a new chamber opera (yes, there is such a thing) first produced in 2009 in Botswana and has been performed several times in Edinburgh. The plot takes the outline of the Shakespearian story of Macbeth and transplants the action into a troop of Baboons in the Okavango delta, Botswana. The work has lyrics by Alexander Macall Smith and music by Tom Cunningham.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show itself. The story is largely very well paced, although I missed the traditional final number in an opera that conveys either the moral or the aftermath. I think the omission of this element is deliberate given the subject matter, but I felt it was a little too abrupt.

The show uses actors to portray all the animals, with most of the cast playing the baboon trope from the middle of the first act to the end. There were some wonderful examples of physical movement which really gave life to the animals that were simply designated using stylised props or single garments. The three human characters were also excellently written with distinct characters.

There were a number of excellent solo arias, and some surprisingly catchy group numbers. Cunningham uses reoccurring themes throughout the show to bring a sense of continuity that was very effective. I would love to see a full orchestral arrangement of the score for this show; it is currently only produced for piano.

The Cast

Although this was a university student group, some of the vocal performances were exceptional. All the primatologists (Jerome Knox, Rachel Timney and Laura Reading) were excellent, capturing the mixture of comedy and sincerity needed. Gemma Summerfield was fantastic as Lady Macbeth. (As I suspected, from her performance, Ms Summerfield is an RCS graduate.)

I was initially unconvinced about Ben Tambling as Macbeth until he sung his solo aria in Act Four, when he was really able to show off the upper part of his range. Not only is he a promising tenor, but he could be a promising countertenor.

Some of the ensemble cast were substantially weaker, and I felt some more work could have been done on the style of the singing – there were a few voices that crept towards a musical theatre rather than operatic sound. However, the group numbers were very well balanced and the musical performance was otherwise virtually flawless.

Special mention must be made also of the physicality of the whole cast. Everyone played at least two animals (other than the primatologists) using their bodies as the primary means of communication. Hours of work must have gone into perfecting the movements which were all utterly convincinh. I retain a soft spot for the owl which reappeared to indicate night falling throughout the show.

Overall

Although this was clearly not to the standard of a professional production, the show itself was fantastic, and I hope that it becomes part of the canon of operatic repertoire. The young actors in this production all showed promise, and I hope that they go on to develop their talents further

Notable Songs

There are a number of good arias, but the opera is only published as a whole.

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ (4/5)

Review: Hansel and Gretel

The first opera of the Fringe this year.

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FRINGE RUN: 12/8-24/8 (not 18th) @ 17:45; Space @ Surgeon’s Hall (53); [£14.00/£11.00/£7.50]

Who, Where and When: Opera Holloway; Space @ Surgeon’s Hall; Tuesday 13th August 2013; 5.45pm

The Show

This production was a new translation of Humperdink’s German opera Hansel und Gretel. I always prefer to see operas in their original language as productions as translations never quite sound as good when sung, and in the age of supertitles, there’s really no need to sing in English. However, Hansel und Gretel is normally performed in English, and this translation (by the director Christopher Moon-Little) is certainly up-to-the-minute in its cultural references.  The staging too has been directed in a very contemporary way. For this reason, the show is likely to be very accessible to older children, teens and other opera novices.

The music for this show is excellent, and I enjoyed a number of the arias. Humperdink’s pacing has the most common opera problem (one that many films face too) – strange pacing. The introductory scene is very long, although there is a wide variety of music, and singers that lifts it. However, the climax is very Witch heavy and has little musical interest and variety or drama to sustain what is a very long section. This, as in many other operas, is made all the longer by the well-paced action throughout the middle section of the work.

I enjoyed this opera, and it is a great “starter” opera – rather like a sweet Rosé is often the introduction to the rich and varied world of wine. There is plenty to inspire the audience, and this creative new staging and translation. I’d have rather heard it in German, but then I’m a geek!

The Cast

There is much to admire in this cast – full of strong voices. The leads playing Hansel (Katie Coventry) and Gretel (Jenny Stafford) created a wonderfully believable sibling relationship switching between love and hate. I also really enjoyed the characterisation employed by Fiona Hymns as the Dew Fairy and Krystal MacMillan as the Sandman.

Although her vocal performance was excellent, I think there were some weaknesses in Sarah Denbee’s acting performance as the Witch. Unlike the other characters, I was concious of the fact she was acting – her performance lacked a depth of conviction which left her character a little shallow and fake.

The musicians were also excellent and deserve recognition for their flawless performance.

Notable Songs

  • Sandman’s Song (Medium-Hard)
  • Dew Fairy’s Song (Medium-Hard)
  • Mother’s Song (Hard)

Overall

Despite my dislike of operas in translation, I couldn’t help but enjoy the light-heartedness of this version of Hansel and Gretel.  Any weaknesses in performances by the cast were not sufficient to distract from the overall quality of the music, acting and singing. I imagine families will really enjoy this production, as will both opera lovers and opera virgins. If you’ve not been to see an opera before, I can’t recommend many better places to start than this production.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ (5/5)