This unfocussed new Carmen could have done with a Ravenhill – or indeed any decent dramatist – to kick it into shape. All the most hummable bits of Bizet’s opera are squeezed into a meandering new hour-long plot via a clunky English libretto, a bashed-up piano and an underutilised guitar. But nobody seems to have remembered that an audience needs a reason to care for the characters.
The evening kicked off with a squally but enthusiastic sing-song in the packed bar to the tune of L’amour est un oiseau rebelle. After a ten minute break for the audience to squeeze into the back room theatre and argue over who’d pinched whose reserved seat, the show finally got under way. In Rodula Gaitanou's update, Carmen lives in a garish hovel with escaped convict Escamillo and a gang of petty thieves, but falls for straight-laced bouncer Don Jose. She refuses to run away with him; he does her in.
The superimposed comedy wasn’t funny, and the cast’s mumbled attempts at spoken dialogue were simply inaudible. But the final one-on-one showdown between Carmen and Jose benefited from the intimate scale of the venue and the compelling conviction of the performers, Christina Gill and Christopher Diffey. More of this exploration of the emotional predicament of the protagonists and fewer cheap gags would have improved this effort no end.
The Coronation of Poppea - King's Head, 12 April 2011
The greatest achievement of Opera Up Close to date has been to persuade London's tin-eared theatrical establishment that banging out variably-sung piano reductions in the back room of a pub is the Future Of Opera (bye bye all credibility, Olivier Awards). However those of us who get out of the house more often realise that it's been done before - and better - by any number of worthy small companies.
The Coronation of Poppea is the first production of theirs to break that mould. It's purposeful, musically convincing drama and - yes - genuinely novel. Instead of pruning the original until there's nothing but a bare husk left, it's been restructured and rearranged in a way that makes sense for today.
Proof that even geniuses have off days. Peter Brook's A Magic Flute (note the indefinite article) is the great director's interpretation of Mozart's Zauberflöte.
Pared down to the absolute minimum, he believes it throws an intimate and spiritual light on the masterpiece. What it actually does is stick a bunch of wispy-voiced young singers in a forest of portable garden canes with naught but a piano in support.
Secondary characters like Boys and Ladies are excised. Spiel is trimmed and en français. A couple of dreadlocked actors (the only real sign of life) are employed to patch up the holes left by all this snipping and shaving.
The result is a bore and a half, with a mildly nauseating aura of hushed reverence about it. Mozart's music is the beating heart of his opera, not an optional extra. Brook of all people should realise this. Or perhaps he does - the show runs at 90 minutes without an interval - so no escape for the terminally enervated.
The Barbican had the cheek to charge up to £50 for tickets. You could find something considerably livelier at any pub opera night - and with better singing.
This is an opera I love beyond reason, and it can stand up to a lot of abuse - think of the brilliant South African version at the Young Vic a couple of years ago. Peter Brook goes a cut too far.
A combination of brilliant marketing and shamefully lazy journalism may have fooled many into thinking pub opera's Year Zero was the day the Olivier Award winning La Bohème opened. But in fact small-scale opera has been a feature of the capital's music life for many years, offering an intimate and informal experience at very reasonable prices.
Dioneo Opera Company's new production of The Emperor of Atlantis runs from 5 to 9 April at the Cello Factory near Waterloo and then transfers to the Arcola as part of the Grimeborn Festival on 17 and 18 August. The opera was written in 1943 in the Terezin concentration camp by the Czech-Jewish composer, Viktor Ullmann. The story approaches the Holocaust from an absurdist perspective culminating in a haunting, redemptive chorale. The SS closed down the public dress rehearsal in the camp and sent composer and librettist to their deaths in Auschwitz. The manuscript was passed on to another inmate who survived and since the 1970's the piece has been performed to great success elsewhere, but only very rarely in the UK. The cast includes current and former RAM, Guildhall and Trinity students under the musical direction of John Murton and it's directed by Max Höhn. Tickets £10-£12.
The Barber of Seville (or Salisbury) - King's Head Theatre, 6 October 2010
If there's one work that seems designed to survive the pub opera treatment, it's The Barber of Seville. Its strengths lie in tunes, jokes and neatly-woven plot, so replacing the orchestra with a dodgy upright piano takes surprisingly little away.
Robin Norton-Hale's new English version shifts the action from Seville to Regency Bath. She takes the odd liberty with the translation, but does without the irritating neologisms beloved of many updaters. Slower-moving and repetitive sections have been condensed or snipped out. A few small additions strengthen characterisations, with the Count's womanising ways and the Doctor's social inferiority complex clearly drawn. In the intimate surroundings of the King's Head (size: a generous drawing-room) operatically-scaled caricature simply wouldn't work; here everyone is human-sized.
The singing falls somewhere between Covent Garden and bathtub standard, but every word is crystal-clear, which is more than you can say for most opera in English. As for dramatic skills and comic timing, this cast beat the average international opera star hands down.
I'm slightly concerned about Opera Up Close's threat of a pub Lulu somewhere down the line (stick to G&S, please), and I'm not convinced the founders' lofty aspirations of bringing opera - real opera - to the masses have been (or ever can be) met with a production of this sort. But it's a great evening out.