Thursday, June 19, 2014

'Cosi fan tutte' by Pop-up Opera, 18th June 2014

Up to now I've had a fractious relationship with opera.  I've always appreciated it, looked forward to it and on the whole just about enjoyed just about everything I've seen, but at the same time I've never really felt that burning passion that you see in proper opera lovers . One of my favourite films is Fitzcarraldo, and I've always envied the title character's passion for Caruso, to the extent that his mission is to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle.  So it's unfortunate that on the rare occasions I've been to the ENO I've never quite felt it.  

Partially this is because orchestral music has a soporific effect on me: no matter how much I'm enjoying myself it's as if I've been hit with a tranquilliser dart.  Partially it's because when I do go to the ENO they put me in the highest, most distant seat in the house, making the people on stage looking like particularly tuneful ants.  Partially it's because I often don't know what the hell is going on; "Why is that fat guy stabbing himself?" or "Wait, is that woman a ghost?".  All these reasons leave me with the queasy sensation that I'm the only person in the room not quite getting it.  But after seeing Pop-up Opera's Cosi fan tutte I can proudly say that I have genuinely enjoyed and appreciated an opera.  Not just any opera either, a proper one, by Mozart and everything!  

Formed in 2011, the company is dedicated to making opera "enjoyable and inviting", dragging it out of drafty establishment halls where red wine is served at £6 a glass by snooty barmen and into the obscure dives I'm more comfortable hanging out in; boats made of scrap metal; a garlic farm; tunnels under London; candlelit underground caverns.  Last night was in the slightly more prosaic (but no less pleasant) The Whip bar above The Running Horse pub, near Bond Street.

Eve Daniell as Fiordiligi
Walking into the bar I spied an old Victorian sofa in the front row and made a beeline for it, sinking into the comfortably squashed cushions.  Soon I had a frosty mint julep in my paws and with the evening sun streaming in I was happy before anyone had even warmed up their voicebox.  My mood only improved as I quickly realised that there's a huge difference between watching an opera singer trotting round a huge stage a hundred meters away and having them right in your face, staring straight at you, singing their guts out.  At this distance you can see their tongues trilling in their mouths, their chests rising and falling with the music, their cheeks vibrating as the music flows out of them.

And what music!  When a decent number of the cast are in full flow the music fills up this small room and spills out into the bustling London evening.  I don't have the ear to be able to tell an excellent opera singer from a 'merely' great one, but everybody in this cast throws themselves into the music with a combination of technical excellence and personality, priming everything with great heaping dollops of emotion and sincerity.  This is most clear in the two women the opera revolves around, Fiordiligi and Dorabella; their torn hearts and confused passions painfully palpable in their arias, particularly in Fiordiligi's despair as she slumps over a fireplace, trying her hardest to convince herself of her love.

Oskar McCarthy as Guglielmo
This despair aside, Cosi fan tutte is most definitely comedy (and a very funny comedy at that). In my experience, the further you climb up the cultural ladder the less funny comedies become, so I was surprised to not only find myself laughing a lot, but actually being encouraged to laugh (even over the singing).  Much of the humour stems from the wonderful title cards projected overhead during the performance.  These range from a wry description of the scene you're about to see, an aside to the audience gently mocking the opera's extremely questionable gender politics or just poking fun at the character's ridiculous situation.  For example; as the women decry the arrival of their foreign suitors we read "Nigel Farage told us this was going to happen!" or when the (super obvious) identity of a character is revealed; "Should have gone to Specsavers...".

Also (surprisingly given that the entire thing was sung in Italian), the plot was very easy to follow.  I chalk this up to a performance philosophy which understands that the precise words sung aren't hugely important, it's the way in which they're sung.  When I attend more conventional operas I get caught up reading the surtitles and miss out on the minutia of the music, so the lack of distraction here is very welcome.

Clementine Lovell as Despina
While the cast was uniformly fantastic, I've got to single out Clementine Lovell as one of the reasons I had such a great night.  As the maid Despina she's the comedy heart of the play. Even when she's not the centre of attention, you can glance over to her and guarantee she'll be doing something funny. One of the biggest laughs in the show was a simple facial expression by her, a "get a load of this guy!" flick of the head as another character puffed themselves up.  A definite highlight was her solo performance during It's a Maid's Life, a perfect showcase of a vibrant, chaotic, pleasantly playful character.

Pop-up Opera's raison d'ĂȘtre is to awaken new audiences to the possibilities of opera, and in this individual instance they've more than succeeded.  I'm incredibly happy that, hand on heart, I can now say I've truly appreciated and enjoyed an opera.  Up to now I thought it might never happen, but the professionalism, friendliness and sheer energy of their Cosi fan tutte was just the ticket.  I can't really imagine anyone that wouldn't enjoy this.

Cosi fan tutte is popping up over the place until 31st July. Tickets here

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