Reviewing Puss in Boots

I was very pleased to be asked to review Tessitoura’s latest production. If you’re anything like me, then you will be a bit sketchy on the story of Puss in Boots and get it mixed up with other storybook cats and that version of Puss in Boots from a popular an animated movie franchise. Like Shrek, the story does involve an ogre as well as royalty but that’s where the comparisons end.

The fairy tale story itself dates back to Italy in the 16th century and was again published in France in the 17th century.  The operatic version was composed by César Cui in 1913 with libretto by Marina Stanislavovna Pol’.  It follows the plot of Perrault’s 17th century French adaptation with instrumental introduction and dances inserted. Tessitoura manages to fit this short three-act opera into a single, flowing performance.

I won’t go into the story here, but rest assured it is easy enough to follow.  The cat is played with style and great expression by the director Sophie Kirk-Harris. Aside from her excellent singing, she manages to add cat mannerisms to her performance as well as the bravado required to play such a confident feline character! The singing is of an exceptionally high standard throughout the cast and the acting is very strong, including Thomas Wood’s innocent portrayal of Jean, the poor miller’s son, Robert Marson’s enthusiastic energy and entranced looks of the King, Jennifer Walker’s majestic and moving performance as the Princess and not forgetting Harry Benfield’s lumbering and terrifying Ogre.

The children are of course, the stars of the show in their own right.  They provide a sense of
the story and give the plot meaning through their actions and reactions with the other characters. Their expressions and dancing are fantastic and the singing is very good, especially in the show’s final song.

If you get the chance to see it, please do. Go and you too will be transported into this very charming fairy tale opera.  You can catch it at the Mackay Theatre, Clifton on Sunday 19th and 26th of November when there will be performances at both 2pm and 4pm.

Post-production review on Playing Strephon

Playing the part of Strephon next to the excellent Lisa House as Phyllis.  Photo courtesy of Gale Foster.

I can’t help but think that White Horse Opera should do more comedies.  It brings out the best in both the performers and the audience.  My three favourite main opera productions with the company (not counting touring productions) have to be La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), Orpheus in the Underworld and this production of Iolanthe. In each production the chorus was a key component and heavily involved.  Not only that, but thanks to the vision and management of Graham Billing and Chrissie Higgs each member of the chorus was an individual character.  For example in La Sonnambula each performer was encouraged to create their own character quirks and decide what their role was in the town.  In Orpheus each chorus member was a particular god and then a party-goer in the underworld.  Finally in Iolanthe, both male and female choruses were customised.  For the female fey, their magic wands were all different as were their outfits.  The male lords had very different costumes to each other and some brandished wine glasses, trumpets and even a hunting rifle!

I believe this gave each performer more buy-in to their parts which in turn provided more energy on stage.  Being able to feed off this energy and react to it gave both the principles and the audience is why the show was a success and received so much positive feedback.  The other reason for its success was Roland Melia’s orchestra.  The Musical Director stripped the original orchestra by half to just include a flute, violin, keyboard, cello, clarinet, percussion, oboe and trumpet.  Any parts not being played by the other parts, the very talented Tony James was asked to fill in on the keyboards.  This had the advantage of not only sounding great, but it meant that the singers on stage could be clearly heard.  This of couse wouldn’t work if the musicians weren’t of a very high standard.  Fortunately, Roland managed to find very talented musicians for these parts.

For Strephon, playing the role straight and with conviction is what worked for me.  Thanks to the reactions and energy of the ensemble it was a treat of a role to play!

 

The cast of Iolanthe with Matt Dauncey as Lord Mountararat.

Playing Strephon

This week, I have the pleasure of performing with White Horse Opera in Market Lavington School, outside of Devizes in Wiltshire.  The group are performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri. First performed in 1882, the story is of a fairy who married a mortal and what then happens when fairy law and the law of Victorian Britain clash.  It is all good fun and happily lampoons the House of Lords.

Into this arena comes Strephon, who is the offspring of the aforementioned peer and peri marriage. Because of this he is both half a fairy and half a mortal, which produces its own unique blend of difficulties.

So what is needed in preparing for the role of Strephon?

The quick answer here is a sense of humour, a lyrical baritone voice and a good costume.  He is an Arcadian shepherd (essentially he is from an idyllic pastoral setting) who is in love with the Lord Chancellor’s ward, Phyllis. Character-wise he is the romantic male lead as part of the ‘how will they get together?’ section of the plot.

The not-so-secret trick of playing Strephon seems to be to play him straight.  He is an instrument of comedy in the show.  His strange predicament of being half a fairy is an ongoing joke and he doesn’t seem to realise how shallow he and Phyllis appear. This culminates in the song ‘If we’re weak enough to tarry’ where the couple decide that they should marry as soon as possible in case they should change their minds afterwards.

It’s very silly and the music is very beautifully composed with some poignant moments as well as plenty of laughs.  If you are in the area, it should be a brilliant evening’s entertainment.  For more information visit:  http://www.whitehorseopera.co.uk/.

Playing Doctor Bartolo

A post-production review:  Opera with a pinch of improvisation!

Photo courtesy of Dajana Kovac.

It is said that the best way to move on from one project is to start another and that was certainly the case after performing in TITCo’s production of Into the Woods. With Tessitoura’s production of Barber of Seville I had a month to learn the lines and music for the part of Doctor Bartolo.  The production had its difficulties; for starters there are many difficult passages to sing, which at times (especially for the Count and Rosina) was the equivalent of doing vocal gymnastics.  The dialogue lines (replacing the recitative, or sung dialogue) were also adapted and completed with about a month to go.  Finally, the director also had to pull out of the production and so Harry (playing Don Basilio) took on the role of stage director. Thanks to his general direction and character tips the scenes took shape, but the performers still had room to contribute and suggest possible moves and expressions.

These difficulties actually brought out a freedom in the performers.  The best part of being involved in this show was seeing how my fellow performers and I managed to adapt to either someone not remembering a line or trying something different.  Couple that with three very different venues (2 churches and a medieval barn) and every performance was unique.  An example of this was when Sam, who played the Count, wanted to change the joke name he gives my character.  Rather than calling Doctor Bartolo ‘Barbaro’ (Italian for Barbarian) he went with ‘Fartolo’, which makes more sense to English audiences, and got a big laugh on the night!

The final example I will give was certainly not scripted but worked because of how the cast reacted to the situation.  My character is getting a shave. Brendan, playing the barber Figaro, has shaving foam at the ready and is motioning it slowly towards me like a parent would ‘train’ food into their child’s mouth. I reacted by leaning back in my chair… my plastic, basic chair… SNAP.  I hit the floor.  There is an uproar of laughter from the audience.  I, both as a performer and character slowly get up, bewildered, helped by Brendan.  I try to stay in character, blustering, knowing that if I don’t I won’t be able to stop laughing myself.  Meanwhile Rebecca playing Rosina has swiftly replaced the chair.  Finally the Musical Director announces we will go from a certain figure in the score, and we carried on.  Blatantly a gaff had occurred but it was handled beautifully by the cast and the audience loved it.

It was a pleasure to be involved in a production with such on-the-edge energy about it, with such a talented bunch of performers!

 

Playing Doctor Bartolo

This week, I will perform with Tessitoura, a Bristol-based opera company that performs in unique spaces with a small but very talented group of singers and musicians.  This project is Rossini’s masterpiece, The Barber of Seville (1816). It follows the fortunes of The Count Almaviva, Rosina, Doctor Bartolo, Don Basilio to name but a few.  Oh, and a certain barber called Figaro.  This very special opera was based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ French comedy Le Barbier de Seville (1775) and is the first of a trilogy, the second of which – The Marriage of Figaro – was famously adapted into an opera by Mozart (1786).

I play the main villain of the piece, or perhaps more truthfully fodder for the Count’s trickery and Figaro’s scheming.  He is a physician and Rosina’s guardian, but he has grander schemes in mind involving marriage and money. This role appears to be the exact opposite of Enrico in Donizetti’s Il Campanello di Notte (The Night Bell) in which I was a bugs bunny-esque rogue.  Now I am Elmer Fudd!

So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Doctor Bartolo?

The role certainly requires an ability to say things quickly, as with the pitter-patter song, A un dottor dell mia sorte.  Otherwise it requires a mix of comic timing and a hint of malevolence.  But mainly, it is a straight-role, being a yin to the Count’s yang.  If he is outrageous, be grounded, and when the Count is calm, then Doctor Bartolo will no doubt be pacing the stage, raging (again, think Bugs and Fudd).  He is also an older man so I need to modify my behaviour to suit that persona.  I even have a prop (a cane) and a bow tie!

It should be lots of fun. The cast is very talented and Rossini’s music, sublime!  If you are looking for something to do this weekend, then do consider coming along!  http://www.tessitoura.co.uk/  It will be performed in St Matthew’s Church in Kingsdown Bristol, St. Mary’s Church in Stoke Bishop Bristol and the medieval barn in Winterbourne.     It’s also in support of the Above and Beyond charity.