THOROUGHLY MODERN MAN: Ballo, King’s Head Theatre

I must say I was hugely excited to receive the invitation to review again at the King’s Head, it being one of my favourite places to come and see what’s on offer.  This evening certainly did not disappoint. I was sceptical at the thought of an opera of Verdian proportions being done justice by the intimate settings of the King’s Head but with the stage being set wisely in thrust mode, the action managed to overcome the spatial limitations of its platform.

Now, if you have seen any of the publicity for this production, you will realise that it bears resemblance to a certain Swedish super-power home store.  Indeed, ‘Ballo’ is the famous Ikea’s retail rival in this version.  That is not to trivialise or undermine the storyline in any way; as all the drama, backbiting and tragedy that one would expect from Verdi is still very much present, just against a more humorous, light-hearted backdrop – kudos to Adam Spreadbury-Maher for striking this fine balance.  A healthy dose of Abba in the second act may have offended the sensibilities of some purists but an open mind will put paid to any such reactions – it certainly had the audience’s hips shaking and bottoms wiggling!

The roles have been double-cast; I was fortunate to catch the tragic lovers Riccardo and Amelia being portrayed by Edward Hughes and Becca Marriott respectively.  Hughes commanded the challenging score magnificently; sustaining repeated high B flats with impressive stamina and resonance.  Marriot’s athletic arias were performed with panache and intelligence, and the two had a lovely chemistry.  The casting surprise of the evening was the trouser role (Oscar) being sung by male coloratura soprano Martin Milnes.  This added great comedy and spark to the show, and if one had closed their eyes they never would have known the difference!  The greatest comic injection, however, came from Olivia Barry’s portrayal of the fortune-teller Ulrica.  She had the audience in stitches with her witty interpretation, and delivered the epic role with great control and a rich, velvety mezzo.

As ever, a theatre of this size limits the scope for orchestral accompaniment.  However, the lightning fingers of Ben Woodward more than compensated for this – he handled this tour de force of a score with great dexterity – top marks.

Ballo runs until 25 May – book tickets here.

Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Mark McCloskey.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MAN: Charles Court Opera present ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, Kings Head Theatre

Charles Court Opera has returned yet again to Islington’s fringe theatre the King’s Head with its latest Gilbert and Sullivan offering, ‘The Pirates of Penzance’.  This is a G&S stalwart that I have heard much about over the years, yet before Thursday had not had the pleasure of watching in its entirety.  This company continues to blaze a trail in the world of fringe opera, not least because of its special connection with the ferociously talented Eaton-Young Piano Duo.  These pianists arrange the orchestral scores complete for piano four hands or two pianos, thereby allowing performances in venues previously inaccessible for opera, without any detriment, might I add, to the quality of accompaniment.

With a cast comprised of a healthy mix of CCO regulars and new faces, the production was at all times sparky and engaging.  John Savournin has once again combined the roles director, choreographer and performer admirably; his silky bass-baritone and comic timing produced an excellent portrayal of the Pirate King.  Another highlight was the comedic trio of Mabel (Alexandra Hutton), Edith (Charlotte Baptie) and Kate (Nichola Jolley); these ladies really captured the naiveté and pliability of three young maidens.  Hutton in particular was extremely effective in evoking Mabel’s ‘blondeness’, through want of a better term – her bright and clear soprano was effectively employed to achieve the character’s personality.  The men also did a superb job; Matthew Kellett’s Samuel was well thought through and humorously received by the audience.  Ian Jervis as General Stanley certainly won the hearts of the auditorium; particularly in his triumphant number ‘I am the very modern of a modern Major-General’.  My other musical highlight was ‘How beautifully blue the sky’, which simultaneously set up the romance between Mabel and Frederic (Kevin Kyle), while allowing Edith and Kate to tickle the audience with their impressive patter-singing.

An extra word of praise must go to Annie Loach’s set design, which made impressive and innovative use of the small space that is the King’s Head Theatre.

CCO continues to provide an effective bridge between top conservatoire education and the professional opera world, while setting itself apart from the pack in the league of G&S productions.  I urge you not to miss out on what will be a fantastic run of performances – book here.

Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Mark McCloskey.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MAN: Carmen, The King’s Head

The King’s Head is rapidly becoming my favourite fringe venue.  As a pub theatre it works perfectly with the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the front bar leading into the snugly intimate theatre behind.  This company makes full and innovative use of the entire venue, resulting in a production that sits on the cutting edge of the modern classical music scene; this is fringe opera at its finest.

The collaborative effort of director Rodula Gaitanou and librettist Ben Cooper, assisted by input from the actors themselves, has brought about an entirely fresh take on this classic opera.  With the story set in North London and centring round a gang of thieves, the audience could not help but feel very much part of the action.  Christina Gill’s Carmen was at all times technically sound yet emotionally aware; a balance that is difficult to strike for any actor.  Her chemistry with Jose (Christopher Diffey) was a highlight of all the interactions that took place, most notably the opera’s tragic denouement, which left me feeling appropriately uncomfortable.  As a pairing their voices complimented each other splendidly, frequently producing effective moments of raw emotion.  It was the duos that appeared to be the highlight of the show’s casting, as Mercedes (Olivia Barry) and Frasquita (Fleur de Bray) captured a much-needed comic essence.  These ladies really took their chance to shine in their extended duet scene in the second act, receiving an uproarious reception from the audience with their carefully timed gags.

The expansive orchestral score was beautifully reduced to accompaniment by piano and Spanish guitar.  Musical Director Elspeth Wilkes set at the helm playing the piano with remarkable technical skill and sensitivity, which was complimented soothingly by Rosie Hopkins’ fine guitar playing.

OperaUpClose continues to live up to its Whatsonstage and Olivier award billing with this daring production.  This was highbrow opera revitalised by a refreshing reinterpretation at absolutely no cost to the quality of performance.  If this is the direction we are heading in then opera buffs everywhere ought to be very excited indeed.

Continues until 12 May: book tickets here.

Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Mark McCloskey.