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Review: Edinburgh Studio Opera’s “Opera Sins”- Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Opera Sins *** (3 stars)

Thursday 19th August: 4.30pm
Friday 20th August: 4.30pm
Monday 23rd August: 4.30pm
Wednesday 25th August: 2.30pm
Thursday 26th August: 4.30pm

St Andrew’s and St George’s Church, George Street; £12.50 (£8.50)

See here for more information: http://www.edinburghstudioopera.com/2010/08/30/opera-sins-fringe-2010/

Yesterday afternoon I made along to St Andrew’s and St George’s church to see the latest offering from relative Fringe newcomers, the University of Edinburgh affiliated “Edinburgh Studio Opera”. I didn’t quite know what to expect from what was essentially an opera sketch show, but at £12.50 for a one-hour performance I had high expectations.

The production took place in a beautiful oval church, with the entire building being used at various points during the scenes to greater or lesser effect. The nature of the venue dictated that there was no stage lighting to speak of, but the beauty of the surroundings and the limited costume and set combined to produce an atmosphere akin to a private performance occurring in an opulent drawing room, rather than a bawdy public spectacle, and thus the lack of “theatrical” lighting was of no detriment to the performance, and even added to the atmosphere. Nick Fletcher (Musical Director) provided a strong accompaniment to the scenes on the grand piano, and has successfully drilled the cast (who for the most part could not see him at the piano) in dynamics, expression and tempi. No mean feat with such a large, strong-voiced cast!

The scenes opened with the sin “Greed” portrayed through a scene from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”. Having been involved in a production of this myself (as Marco in 2006) I know how fiendishly difficult some of the larger ensemble numbers are. The scene revolved around the relatives of the recently deceased Buoso Donati, who were frantically trying to find his last will and testament. All voices were uniformly strong in this piece as the performers rushed around stage frantically trying to find the elusive parchment, eventually retrieved from the pulpit by the lovesick Rinuccio (Joe Doody), much to the consternation of his fellows. The audience’s enjoyment of this well-staged, vocally robust scene was emphasized by the extra whoops and cheers provided for the unfortunate soul who had to lie motionless from the moment the audience entered until the end of the scene. I still preferred the way we did it in 2006 though…

This excellent introduction was unfortunately followed by a particularly weak scene from Monteverdi’s,“L’incoronazione Di Poppea” depicting “Pride”.  The disappointment induced by this scene was not the fault of either of the singers, but simply because the music was dull, revolving around an uninspiring dialogue between two lovers. Halfway through I admit I gave up following the translation in my programme. One would have thought that a better example of pride could have been found amongst the multitude of scenes and arias at the production team’s disposal…

Next we were treated to Jerome Knox’s powerful rendition of a popular aria from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” – Non più andrai. Whilst the singing of all performers in this scene was up to scratch, something about the scene just felt a little flat. Maybe it is because I am comparing the scene to Opera Ireland’s excellent production (Dublin, 2008), but I don’t think I agreed with the Director (George Ransley)’s decision to go with Gilbert & Sullivan-esque physical actions to accompany the words being sung on stage. However, this blocking did ensure that those audience members who had not paid fifty pence for a programme, or were unfamiliar with aria, knew what was going on.

Things were quickly back to their impressive beginnings with the fourth deadly sin, “Wrath”, depicted in this context by a scene from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. I have never heard this opera before but after this taster I am most definitely going to have a look for it. The music was gorgeous and lush, with Suzanne McGrath’s soprano (Ellen) soaring elegantly over the awe-inspiring sounds of the ethereal chorus in the gallery behind the audience. The chorus was led by an equally commanding Frankie Powlesland as the Reverend, and although Ian McBain did not get to sing anything as John, his portrayal of the young apprentice was touching and complemented McGrath’s performance nicely.

“Gluttony”, my favourite of the seven deadly sins, was portrayed through another excellent piece of music – the scene from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel where the young children find the gingerbread house in the woods. This was another new piece of music for me, and another piece that I am definitely going to try and track down. The performances from Rachel Timney (Hansel) and Laura Reading (Gretel) definitely made this scene, their voices being up to the task, and some of the expressions of delight on their faces being worthy of Hallmark. It was lucky that their performances were so strong as the staging for this scene was virtually non-existent. It was a clever idea to have chocolate lowered down from the gallery, and I know it would be impossible for a fringe show to produce an edible gingerbread house, but it felt somewhat cruel to leave the performers wandering aimlessly around the audience for such a long period of time.

“Envy” was portrayed in another bizarrely chosen scene from Rameau’s “Zoroastre”. It seems that the performers (Gareth McGuigan and Lauren Fraser) drew the short straw in being allocated this scene, as both had robust voices which I would have liked to have heard tackling more pleasing music… but I guess if anything this production has demonstrated a wide-survey of the opera phenomenon and shown me what I do and don’t want to investigate further.

Finally, the audience were presented with a tour de force in form of Vanity Fair from Vaughan-Williams’ “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. The wonderful layers of frantic modern harmonies combined to produce a wall of breathtaking sound reminding me fondly of his “Dona Nobis Pacem” which I used to listen to on a regular basis. The entire cast were involved in this colourful scene, many of whom were wearing their costumes from previous scenes, which only added to the flamboyant and foreboding nature of the scene. ESO couldn’t have asked for a better finale to their production.

All-in-all I feel I can only give this production, as a whole, three stars. The music was uniformly of a very high standard throughout, and whilst some of the scenes were definitely worthy of a four or five-star rating, the whole piece was confounded by the inclusion of some less attractive music, and some scenes which seemed to have been directorially neglected, although admittedly to the benefit of others. However, everyone involved in this production should be proud as each and every one of them participated in some moments of greatness and the merits far outweigh the criticisms. Do try and make it along to their other two performances (and obtain copies of the Vaughan-Williams, Britten and Humperdinck).

I have also posted this review on Broadway Baby.

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