BRAVO BRAVISSIMO! OPERA-ROM-COM FROM THE HEART
I knew I was going to like this operatico-jukebox backstage rom-com (a whole new genre) when Jenny Stafford – as trembling, consumptive Mimi in La Boheme – bared her teeth at Rodolfo and hurled herself backwards in a ferocious thumping faint before sitting up to resume her irritable love scene. Beware the wrath of a miffed soprano whose ex-fiancé – Tom the tenor who cruelly jilted her – has come back to co-star in a struggling touring opera company.
This creation for Merry Opera, now recast and near the end of its tour, is the creation of John Ramster, who also directs. What he has done, within the company’s mission to popularize opera and employ rising singers, is to write a romantic comedy of classic shape (meeting, breakup, reunion, tentative rapprochement, misunderstanding, sadness, reconciliation). He then set it in a struggling touring company so he could use real scenes, arias and dramatic passages from Puccini, Donizetti, Mozart , Monteverdi, Handel and Tchaikovsky operas to illustrate and drive the ‘real’ plot. Then he bungs in some modern standards like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and You Made Me Love You, so the cast break into them as a sort of sorbet between the rich courses.
So skilfully has he done it that the show can work both as an introduction to opera for newcomers and a rich source of in-jokes for those who already love it. There is a bafflingly lovely quartet mashup of The Pearl Fishers and Lakme, and a lovely swipe at ENO style when director Marcus (Matthew Quirk) is trying to get a reluctant cast enthused about a “high-concept non-gender-specific Mikado with a zombie aesthetic” which involves dressing his glum baritone in a gymslip to join a savagely directed “Three Little Maids from School Are We”.
But at its heart, and illustrated in the first half with a comic-opera Donizetti scene and in the second with the more heartfelt griefs and yearnings of Puccini, is the romance. Jenny Stafford has a voice of immense beauty and a modern, pragmatic sincerity, and the magnificent upcoming tenor Thomas Elwin is Tom. All the young singers are terrific, and to hear trained unamplified voices is a treat. The love duet from Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea is supremely beautiful, and Elwin’s Una Furtiva Lagrima makes hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Nice comic moments too: notably Alistair Ollerenshaw as George the gay baritone. As all operagoers know, it is useful for the wicked baritone to make the tenor jealous, and when Jenny hurls herself on his Don Giovanni and deprives him, within a brief duet, of both his fancy shirt and his cherished “rehearsal wig”, you cheer.
And so to reconciliation: tragic Boheme conveniently shades into happy Figaro for the purpose, the lovers are united and the seven others manage to sound like a chorus four times the size (musical director Stephen Hose, take a bow).
Perfect. Now please, Merry Opera, do another of these . Set it in an ENSA army camp entertainment next time, so you can scarph in some rousing bits of Verdi… The only drawback I can see to this strand of backstage-musicals is the risk of making innocent Guildhall trainees think that real opera companies always resolve their personnel and romantic issues by bursting into appropriate recitative and aria. But what a gorgeous double fantasy: opera about opera.
still touring: London The Scoop 18-20 June
Norwich Playhouse 22 June
Kenton, Henley 28 June