Posts Tagged ‘ Oliver-John Ruthven ’

Semele, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Hampstead Garden Opera
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

Semele Handel

Picture: LaurentCompagnon

OperaUpClose may be dominating the headlines with their re-imaginings of Bohème and Butterfly but in Highgate there is another fringe opera company, who play with an altogether straighter bat. James Hurley’s production of Semele for Hampstead Garden Opera sticks to Handel’s scenario – and is all the better for it.

The text, by William Congreve, tells the classical story of Semele, who catches the eye of Jove, king of the Olympian gods. He transforms into an eagle and whisks her away to Mount Olympus where they share “endless pleasure”. Ahem. Jove’s celestial wife, Juno, however, becomes jealous. She sneaks into the palace where Semele is hidden and persuades her that she will become immortal if she sees Jove in his godly form. In fact, she will die.

The cast is almost entirely made up of postgraduate music students and the singing is universally of a high standard. Tom Verney as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Prince Athamas, Semele’s mortal fiancé, is a particular highlight. He trips lightly up and down Handel’s coloratura as if they’ve just occurred to him. The central role is sung voluptuously by Robyn Parton, who tackles the challenging part confidently. She holds every eye in the house as she sulks like a child or pouts playfully at the king of the gods. Jove is sung by tenor Zachary Devin with pinpoint clarity and Kathryn Walker’s excellent Juno is all cartoon anger and feel-my-wrath vocal flourishes.

In Hurley’s production the scenes in the mortal realm are set in something approximating to the 1950s but for Mount Olympus, white dominates. In Rachel Szmukler’s design the back wall is hung with strips of white polystyrene and the chorus of spirits wear costumes of bubble wrap. Semele is given a bubble wrap dress which results in some comic popping noises during the rather intimate scenes between her and Jove. This design comes into its own, however, in one of the closing scenes in which Semele storms around doing her best impression of an ireful goddess as she rips down the gauze and white drapes.

Oliver-John Ruthven directs the musical side of things well from the harpsichord (yes, a harpsichord in a pub!) but there is a sense that the musical director’s vision is at odds with the director’s. For example, Athamas pleads with Semele’s sister “do not shun me” while she is, in fact, clinging to him. Similarly, the opening action – before the overture begins – doesn’t add anything to the performance and is incomprehensible. Semele was written as an oratorio so is short on dramatic action, but Hurley over-compensates for this with too many gimmicks which tend to distract from rather than complement the very enjoyable singing.

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The Magic Flute, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Upstairs at the GatehouseThe Magic Flute, Mozart
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Translation: Stephen Fry
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

With panpipes, enchanted bells and a family tree more complex than any Shakespeare ever penned, The Magic Flute is utter nonsense. But that hasn’t stopped it becoming one of Mozart’s best-loved works. Hampstead Garden Opera’s production, directed by James Hurley, deals with the sillness and the childish japes, much more successfully than the darker parts of the tale.

Prince Tamino is rescued from an evil demon (it’s a serpent in the original) by three ladies who work for the Queen of the Night. Said nocturnal monarch asks Tamino to rescue her daughter, Pamina, whom she says has been kidnapped by the evil Sarastro. Tamino, on seeing a picture of Pamina, falls instantly in love – as only opera heroes can. He is accompanied on his quest by a feather-brained bird catcher, Papageno – who provides every laugh of the evening.

William Balkwill’s Tamino is all chinos and cut-glass RP: Balkwill does a good turn as the dull but nice “Prince Charming” – though his voice sounds a touch strained at times. Papageno, played by Samuel Queen, gets all the good lines in an otherwise surprisingly pedestrian libretto by Stephen Fry. What Queen lacks in richness of tone, he makes up for in charisma. A nod should go to costume designer Madeleine Millar for the brilliant bird-patterned “onesies” (an adult baby-grow) sported by Papageno and Papagena.

But the men are outshone by the women in this production. Viki Hart, as the Queen of the Night dazzles with pin-point coloratura and a beautifully luscious sound. The Queen’s famous aria is without doubt one of the highlights of the evening, sparking calls of “Bravo” from the audience. As her daughter, Pamina, Raphaela Papadakis is endearing and moving by turns. Her mellow sound proves particularly poignant in singing of Pamina’s pain when she thinks Tamino no longer loves her. Elsewhere, the three ladies (Helen Bailey, Siân Cameron and Charlotte King) are impressive.

Several motifs have been added to Mozart’s original by Hurley: a doll’s house, a voodoo Barbie and Ken (probably not coming to a store near you soon), vast quantities of alcohol and a giant toy box. The voodoo dolls create some arresting scenes, proving particularly effective as a literalisation of the Queen of the Night’s psychological manipulation of her daughter. The doll’s house, however, is more perplexing – I think the story is supposed to be taking place inside it, though I’m not sure.

The Dionysus Ensemble, under the baton of Musical Director Oliver-John Ruthven, has some shaky moments and it occasionally feels as if they aren’t quite working with the singers but parallel to them. Generally, Hurley’s production rattles too quickly over the more complex plot points, making the story hard to follow for those unfamiliar with the tale and it loses momentum during the “Masonic” scenes in Sarastro’s court. But there are some stunning moments in this production – courtesy of a couple of true stars-in-waiting.

Runs until 14 November

This review first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

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