St Mary’s Church, Islington
Madame Herz – Sarah Foubert
Mlle Silberklang – Hazel McBain
Bastienne, Impresario (Francesca) – Alys Meredid Roberts
Bastien, M. Vogelgesang – Nick Allen
Colas, Buff – Piran Legg
Anna Pool (director)
Fiona Rigler (designs)
Mark Ruddick (movement)
Fiona Johnston and Clementine Lovell (producers)
Tina Dezart (stage manager)
Paul McKenzie (piano)
Arts world ecologies are as complex and fragile as those in the ‘natural’ world, not that we should make too definite a distinction. (Tell that to someone whose ‘impact’ case study looks as though it will rest in good part on the tracing of such connections…) Companies such as Pop-up Opera are just as crucial to operatic flourishing as their starrier, more expensive – and not necessarily superior – cousins. Each year, the company puts on two or three productions, toured to sixty or seventy venues around the country, many of which would be entirely without opera; they also offer opportunities to ‘up and coming’ as well as more established professional singers, employing about forty artists every year. Their claim that they ‘change people’s perception of opera’ would certainly be endorsed by this audience member, typical or otherwise.
It was all the sadder, therefore to learn of a real-life calamity having befallen the company the night before these performances. Their touring van had been broken into, with the result that most of their equipment and props had been stolen. By the evening, they had managed to put something together – would we even have known? – with something old and something borrowed, although not much that was new or blue. Might I ask any readers who feel able to consider a donation? People have already shown great generosity, but there is some way to go. (Please click here to find out more.)
Such was the metatheatrical, all-too-real context for these particular performances of Der Schauspieldirektor and Bastien und Bastienne (free to the audience, courtesy of the Soul in the City community festival hosted by St Mary’s, Islington). A little opera company suddenly receives news that its public funding has been cut – to nothing. Its impresario, Francesca, and her assistant and budding singer, Buff, must therefore accede to the whims of M. Vogelgesang, his beloved wife, Mme Herz, and Mlle Silberklang, albeit not without reminding them that, in art as in all things, cooperation, not individualism, should be our watchword. Lessons learned, however provisionally, the company’s production of Bastien und Bastienne might proceed.
One might moan, I suppose, that the two difficult lady singers do not actually appear in the opera ‘proper’, in which we learn that Francesca too can sing (as Bastienne). But such would be to miss the point. All such arrangements are provisional; very few are, or should be, literal. Such is hardly what art is about – or should be. If only the deathly wing of the ‘authenticke’ brigade, ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’, or uninteresting podium tyrants such as Toscanini would learn, or even consider, such lessons. And so, we find ourselves in the world of Colas the relationship guru, dispensing snake-oil advice to our shepherd and shepherdess – here very much of the here and now – yet ultimately failing either to break them up or to bring them together. Those things are ultimately down to them, whatever his hocus pocus (or ‘Diggi, daggi’) Mesmerism. In a nice twist, they finally learn at the end from his casebook what he has been up to – or do they?
As ever, the whole proved more than the sum of its estimable parts – not forgetting Pop-up Opera’s trademark captions (Rachel Hunter) which, in their freeness both offer assistance with the Italian and German – the dialogue to Der Schauspieldirektor, newly written, was in English anyway – and commentary upon it. We thus gained an insight into the very business of performance and staging: there is no pristine ‘original’, free of interpretation. Paul McKenzie did sterling, sensitive service on the piano: any rehearsal pianist will know what a challenge such parts can be, not least on a less than perfect instrument. Sarah Foubert and Hazel McBain offered stage presence as well as vocal fireworks as the two Schauspieldirektor sopranos: nicely contrasted, yet able to come together when necessary. Alys Meredid Roberts, waiting in the spoken wings, as it were, in the first half, offered a lovely, heartfelt soprano performance of her own in the second. Nick Allen truly came into his own as Bastien too, again both complement and necessary contrast. The same might be said of Piran Legg’s Colas: a difficult role to judge, yet here offering a nice balance between the dark and the humorous. These are definitely artists worth supporting – if you can. The show must go on.