Thursday, March 12, 2015

'Mozart's Die Entführung (The Abduction)' at Robert Kime, 10th March 2015

Pop-Up Opera's 2014 production of Cosi Fan Tutte marked the first time I genuinely, wholeheartedly enjoyed opera. It's not like I wasn't trying during the humongous ENO productions I attended, but the deadly combination of soothing music, extremely comfy seats and a dose of wine sent me into a cosy snooze. Not so with this company; their objective is to make opera "enjoyable and inviting", which they achieve via the comic/vocal talents of their players and their nose for tracking down fascinating venues.

That nose is how I found myself looking for an antiques shop in Bloomsbury as the sun set on Tuesday evening. Robert Kime's shop turns out to be a wonderful space to host an opera. The place has only been open a couple of years, but the wealth of antiques crammed inside makes it easy to imagine Londoners past reclining on beautifully restored Georgian sofas or imperiously sat behind mahogany Victorian desks. High above everything sits a painting of a classical ruin, the painting itself a ruin: oils fading into shades of brown and a small, worn hole in the canvas. 

It's a wonderfully relaxing place to be, the air heavy with the smell of old wood, perfume, tea and a smidge of varnish. The surroundings prove to be well suited to Pop-Up Opera's interpretation of Mozart's Die Entführung. This is the story of the hero Belmonte (William Smith) and his sidekick Pedrillo (Tom Morss). They're on a mission to rescue their girlfriends, Konstanze (Eve Daniell) and her assistant Blonde (Emily Philips) from the harem of Pasha Salim. Standing in their way is the brutish overseer Osmin (Marcin Gesla), bent on the impaling, torture and execution of any would-be knights in shining armour. To save the fair maidens, our heroes must use all their wits and guile as they pray that their lover's virtues are intact.

But Pop-Up Opera, though steadfastly sticking to Mozart musically and vocally (the opera is performed in German), certainly aren't purists. They approach the material with tongue firmly lodged in cheek, every opportunity for an irreverent comment eagerly seized and exploited. So, Pasha Salim's harem becomes "Big Brother's Beauty Booty Camp", Belmonte and Konstanze are engaged in an online relationship and character motivation is conveyed by Facebook status updates or iMessaging.

Video displays to the right of singers keep up a constant stream of asides on the action, often hilariously undermining the emotional intensity of the music. So, a beautifully performed, hugely melodramatic diva-like outpouring of sadness is summarised as "I miss my online boyfriend :'(". It's refreshing to be encouraged to laugh during the opera, Pop-Up Opera immediately defining themselves in opposition to the staid, buttoned down tradition where so much as coughing can attract the snootiest of snooty glares.

Silly though things can get (and boy can they get silly), the show is anchored by the considerable talents of the cast. Eve Daniell, who impressed me so much in last year's Cosi Fan Tutte, barnstorms her way through Konstanze, the virtuoso arias sending shivers down my spine. Neatly balancing the comedy aspects of her character with genuine affection she's a wonder to watch. Similarly excellent is Emily Phillips as Blonde, whose beautiful voice simply drips with personality, elevated by her expressive body language.

Mozart and Donkey Kong - together at last!
The men also impress, Paul Hopwood and Tom Morss hilariously puffing themselves up with swashbuckling confidence. There's a moment late in the play where they casually insult their girlfriends and must plead for forgiveness; each falling to their knees in melodramatic contrition. But it was Marcin Gesla's Osmin that stuck most firmly in the mind, his booming bass and slightly confused demeanour making every second he was on stage an absolute treat.

My only minor criticism is that at times things are a bit too irreverent. Die Entführung is undoubtedly a comedy, but tucked within are nuggets of high emotion - the constancy of Konstanze, the anger of Osmin and the shaky confience of Belmonte. Most importantly, the psychic pain of the separated lovers is never treated as something to laugh it. So when we're watching a character sing their heart out via Mozart's stunningly beautiful music, the tingle in your soul is a bit dampened when you glance to the screens and see some snarky comment about her keenly played misery.

That only slightly undermines the action and the soul of Mozart's opera remains firmly intact - but with the raw skill of these performers how could it not? Pop-Up Opera remain the single most engaging opera company I know, to the point of asking me to musically participate in the scene by banging some cups together!

When I walked into Robert Kime I hardly expected to leave being able to say that I'd provided (minor) musical accompaniment to a Mozart opera, but it's experiences like this this that keep a Pop-Up Opera production such fresh, dynamic and exciting prospect. If you're on the fence about opera I highly recommend them; they're a company with real heart, vigorously pumping fresh blood into the artform.


Pop-Up Opera's Mozart's Die Entführung is at various locations around the country until 24th April. Full listings here.

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