Austerity is the mother of invention, as they now say, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in Operaview’s new touring production. The double bill – Mozart’s mini love story Bastien & Bastienne with Gustav Holst’s spiritual Savitri – employs little more than a white muslin sheet, a string of paper dolls and human shadows to set the scene. Yet its soft artistic flair transports us to another world.
The Etcetera theatre is the tiniest I’ve ever sat in. The black boxy studio is tucked like a crow’s nest in the roof above The Oxford Arms pub on Camden High Street. It can’t seat more than 40, and tonight we’re about fifteen. Not the best turnout for Operaview (it is a Monday night) but great for us – it feels like we’re getting a private recital from three of the country’s top young singers.
The production is short but sweet, which also suites us well. Bastien & Bastienne (composed when Mozart was twelve – an age at which many musicians are still grappling with the recorder) is just forty minutes, and Savitri has been pruned down to twenty. “In these intimate theatres, we don’t want people to start wondering when the show will end”, says Greek-born director Natalie Katsou, whose modus operandi is to present digestible-length operas in non-conventional spaces, and to bring a fresh perspective to traditional story telling.
This evening ticks all the boxes. It might feel like a whistle stop tour, but these are perfect snippets for an introduction to opera, or if you can’t quite stomach ENO’s six-hour Mastersingers of Nuremburg. Or if, like us, you’re after a light injection of music into your evening plans (by 8.30pm, my friend and I are ordering dinner at a nearby restaurant).
oprano Helen Bailey plays the huffy Bastienne, disgruntled by her boyfriend’s lack of effort. She decides to play hard to get, with the help of her friend Colas (sung by suave baritone Joseph Kennedy) which works well and the relationship quickly gets back on track.
Clearly, Katsou’s priority is storytelling. She keeps things simple, setting the action in present day Camden town so we have no trouble relating to the characters, and tweaking the libretto to fit with modern lingo. There’s plenty of spoken script (during which the performers slightly over play their characters) so it feels more like a short play with incidental songs.
Singing is these performers’ forte. Between them, Bailey, Kennedy and tenor Alessandro Fisher boast training from the Royal College of Music, Trinity Conservatoire and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and gracefully adjust their qualified voices to the damp acoustics. Musical director and talented repetiteur Amber Rainey handles the reduced score with sensitivity, her hands quite literally cradling the notes as she strokes the keys of the electric keyboard and draws as much sentiment from the instrument as she can.
Our snapshot of Holst’s Savitri (a one-act opera written 150 years later, during the composer’s ‘Sanskrit period’) lures us into a mythological Indian forest, where Death pays a visit to Savitri (Bailey) as she sleeps. He’s come for her husband, Satyavan (Fisher). Blue light shines through the muslin, as the shadow of Death (Kennedy) looms overhead and the silhouettes of cut-out figures ‘dance’ along a piece of string like Indian shadow puppets. The music itself is simple and evocative; Kennedy and Bailey’s voices interweave a cappella as the story begins, and we’re sucked into the exotic, modal, Far-Eastern sound.
It couldn’t be further from the Mozart, and yet reinforces the evening’s uplifting theme of love’s triumph against the odds. And as Operaview continue to triumph over a lack of funding, I hope more people discover this extraordinarily creative little company.
By Francesca Wickers