All you need is…

…a simple stage set and a few props that can (literally) be packed in the back of a van,  a six-piece band, a small cast of young singers (singing in English), and a garden somewhere, and you have the ingredients for a performance by GARDEN OPERA (oh, and good weather is a help).

I’ve just walked home from the Old Observatory Garden in Greenwich (a magic setting), with a song in my heart, a lump in my throat, and — oh dear, is that something in my eye? (sniff)…  This was a performance of La Boheme, one of sixty performances on Garden Opera’s summer tour, and it was wonderful.

As a corrective to over-elaborate productions at *ahem* the Royal Opera House and elsewhere,  Garden Opera is about the essentials, stripping away distractions such as lavish settings, chorus, supernumerary actors and production ‘Konzepts’;  what remains is the essence of the opera, the music, the storytelling and the emotion.

Of course you also need a company whose members are all totally dedicated to what they are doing (on a shoestring), and an arranger, conductor and director with a clear idea of what they are aiming for.  Garden Opera is a shining example on all fronts, and has given me some of my most intense operatic experiences in recent years (including the most moving Magic Flute ever — and the only one in which the Queen of Night also played Papagena and [if my memory serves me] the serpent;  a mind-stretching Don Giovanni;  and a Carmen with a stomach-turningly realistic and unexpected murder only a few feet from where I was sitting).

Director Martin Lloyd-Evans does not flinch from being controversial or thought-provoking, but this was a ‘straight’ production apart fom the opening (silent) conceit of an aged Rodolfo shuffling back to the attic to place another bunch of flowers on the sofa in memory of the past.

In the course of the tour, roles are double- or triple-cast, so each performance may be different.  I saw Alexander Anderson-Hall as a slightly reedy but believably intense Rodolfo, James McOran-Campbell as a fine Marcello (he could walk into the role in any opera house), Adam Miller and Stefan Holmstrom as a characterful Schaunard and Colline, Yvonne Patrick as a flighty, haughty Musetta, and Anne Bourne as a heartbreakingly lovable Mimi.

A word also for Martin Nelson’s cameo appearances as an ‘Alfred Doolittle’ Benoit and an SS-officer Alcindoro (the setting was vaguely 1940s Paris) helplessly in thrall to Musetta (his ‘Qviet! Qviet!’ was hilarious — although a lady in the audience registered her disapproval of the cod-German stereotype.  Hmm.  Sense of humour failure…).

This Mimi was no shrinking violet, making it obvious that she hadn’t ‘lost’ her key any more than Rodolfo had failed to find it (and, by the way, if Mimi has just come up the stairs, how come she didn’t bump into the other chaps waiting at the bottom?   I think she had been lurking in her attic across the corridor waiting to catch Rodolfo on his own).

Praise, too, to Amanda Holden for a witty and effective singing translation — although one or two of the lines sounded familiar!  (‘I’m sixty but I’m sexy’ is (c) Jeremy Sams, I believe…) [wrong!  see my Comment]  And to the orchestral reduction (piano, flute doubling clarinet, trumpet, two violins and cello) by MD (and Director of the company) Peter Bridges and Bernie Lafontaine, for which the highest praise is that for much of the time one forgets one isn’t listening to the whole score as Puccini wrote it.

If Garden Opera comes to a venue near you, go and see it!  Meanwhile check out their website, — spread the word, give them your support.  Watch out for their indoor performances in the winter too. 

Thanks, Lucy, for another unforgettable experience.  Lest we forget what opera is all about.

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One Comment on “All you need is…”

  1. jonathanburton Says:

    Amanda Holden tells me that she wrote ‘I’m sixty, but I’m sexy’ in 1986, whereas Jeremy Sams’s translation was done for ENO in 1993 as I well remember.

    Pure simultaneity, I’m sure! *ahem*

    Many apologies for falsely accusing her of plagiarism.

    (Amanda’s ‘ossias’ were:
    I’m fifty but I’m nifty
    I’m forty but I’m naughty
    I’m thrty but I’m dirty)

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