Earlier this year Civilian Theatre found itself in the stifling surroundings of Eat, Pray, Love Drink, Shop & Do to see Popup Opera perform Le Docteur Miracle; a marvellous little piece that lingered in the memory more for the quality of singing and the near brute-force goodwill on display than for a venue so cloyingly twee that a Zooey Deschanel guest appearance didn’t seem out of the question.
A similar proposition in the height of summer did leave cause for concern but this was almost immediately offset by The Whip; a period cocktail bar that may be painfully on-trend but at least it is dedicated to rehabilitating that forgotten classic – the Mint Julep; a more appropriately summery concoction it would be hard to think of.
Julep in one hand, Mozart programme in the other. It is easy to begin to feel like being part of a world long left behind. The limited seating and period furniture gives the event even more of the sensation of being part of an audience invited to an Edwardian stately home for a summer party rather than to a room above a pub in Mayfair.
It is this tongue-in-cheek nod to refined gentility that Popup Opera are so good at selling. Even Harry Percival’s avuncular presence before and after the show comes across as a charmingly pleasant Hooray Henry hypeman.
One of the more appealing things elements of a Popup Opera show is their inventiveness towards setting. They clearly recognise the constraints of the limited space and the need for a touring production to be highly adaptable, and there is a wonderful malleability that is carried across in a very carefully managed shonkyness to proceedings. This is testament to the quality of Darren Royston’s direction and the skill of a cast forced to combine the ability to perform Mozart’s score with a sense for comic timing and knack for audience management. It is a far more demanding performance than it may first appear.
Not being remotely qualified to comment on the technical quality of the singing, I can only say that a layman only requires two things from opera; to enjoy the singing and to understand what is going on. The cast are excellent on both counts. From the start you feel that you are in safe hands, with particular standout performances from Adam Torrance (Ferrando), Eve Daniell (Fiordiligi) and Clementine Lovell as the scene-stealing Despina.
Adam Torrance has one of those beautiful tenor voices that allows Mozart’s score to soar effortlessly, it crosses the room with a wonderfully relaxed sweetness that is the aural equivalent of drowning in a vast vat of honey. Eve Daniell is as impressive, if not more so given the almost painful transitions between the top and bottom of her range that sits within the score. Their abilities are fully drawn out in one the production’s highpoints – Act II Scene II where Daniell and Torrance deliver two of Mozart’s most beautiful arias.
There are similar gems dotted throughout; Lovell, as the maid, is strong throughout and, compared to the two noblewomen, her singing comes across as much lighter, almost bird-like. She reinforces this with a very expressive performance, exuberant and full of movement in contrast to the rather more stately physicality of Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Lovell also has license to steal scenes and where this may be distracting in some performances, it works within Popup Opera productions because the fourth wall is so deliberately broken throughout that the lines between audience and cast have a tendency to blur.
Perhaps the real high point of the show – and this could be where Mozart has always excelled as the master of the operatic form – is in the quintet and sextet singing. This complex musicality is assuredly handled by the cast and the audience really has the opportunity to hear the different layers – harmoniously competing yet complimenting each other. There can be few more beautiful sensations than relaxing back and enjoying the sonic drenching that comes through in pieces such as Alla Bella Despinetta or the finale to Act 1, Ah, che tutte in un momento.
As with Le Docteur Miracle the show is supported via the use of projected images that both work as prompt for the action, a minimalist libretto and also meta-textual commentary on the action. It comes as little surprise that the programme notes the captions are inspired by Eurotrash; a TV show that turned highly-stylised surreal puerility into a minor art-form. On the surface it may seem like throwaway irreverence but for a non-opera goer it is an engaging way into the production without providing the burden of needing to follow the libretto or rustle through the programme during the quiet bits.
The other advantage is that because it both reflects the play and comments upon it then it gives Popup Opera to critique the rather distasteful gender politics that Cosi fan Tutte inevitably portrays. Women do not come off well in the opera despite being the innocent party for most of it and some well-judged captions really do provide Popup Opera the opportunity to have their cake and eat it.
It is another strong show from this little company that is continuing to prove that one does not to spend the big bucks in order to make big waves and attract new audiences. Maybe the Met Opera House could stand to learn a thing or two…
Want some Mozart? Get your lugholes round this then…