Thursday, June 18, 2015

'L'italiana in Algeri' at the Brunel Shaft, 16th June 2015

When most people think of opera, they imagine a crowd of white-tied toffs watching a wailing woman who looks as if she's been dragged backwards through a make-up counter. Opera is an artform where emotion is accentuated beyond all reasonable bounds: sadness becomes a grief, anger becomes fury and jealousy is an untamable green-eyed monster. So it's refreshing to see something where, for all the skill and talent, the tone is loose, dumb goofiness.

Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri, here reinterpreted by Pop-Up Opera as a Vegas-set casino sleaze narrative, is jam-packed with silliness. Typically, the company puts on a short classic opera then pokes fun at the more outrageous bits. For example, a long, energetic and adventurous aria might be summarised in the surtitles as "I really miss my girlfriend!". This drains any pomposity, but, well in L'italiana in Algeri there doesn't seem like much pomposity to drain away.

Mostly set backstage at the Algiers Casino, the narrative revolves around battlin' egos and blind lust. Owner Mustafa (Bruno Loxton) is struggling to cope with his aging showgirl star (and wife) Elvira (Catrin Woodruff). In exasperation he decides to be rid of her, scheming to offload her onto luckless gambler Lindoro (Oliver Brignall). Complicating matters is Lindoro's devotion to his long lost girlfriend Isabella (Helen Stanley) and her new (temporary) squeeze Taddeo (Oskar McCarthy). 

These larger than life characters are tossed together in all kinds of ways, shifting in status, falling in love, going mad and growing furious - eventually tangling up in one big farcical knot. But though feelings run high and hearts snap like twigs, every development is handled with dead-on comedy timing and a generally upbeat, irreverent atmosphere.

Pop-Up Opera are famed for their choice of performance locations. I've seen them stage operas inside cocktail bars and antique shops, though they're also ventured into castles, vineyards and garlic farms. This production found them ensconced in the stygian depths of The Brunel Museum's Thames Tunnel shaft. I've visited this venue before, when it deeply tickled my history-lover's bone. 

It's tricky to imagine a more dramatic entrance to a venue; from street level you climb down into a miniature concrete pit, then duck your head and shuffle forwards through a low concrete tunnel. You emerge about 40 feet in the air, perched atop a scaffold. Gingerly you make your way down to the floor, finding yourself in a huge cylindrical room below which the paradoxically named Overground periodically rumbles past.

Last time I was here it was packed with bizarre audiovisual art, the subterranean location making for an effectively grimy backdrop. So I was eagerly anticipating returning, especially for a company as consistently entertaining as Pop-Up Opera. Sadly, the venue didn't quite live to expectations. My primary problem is that while the shaft is an amazing place to explore, as a static backdrop it's essentially a large grey wall. This made it an austere viewing experience, somewhat at odds with the tasteless Vegas luxury in this adaptation.

But what the venue lacks in glitz it certainly makes up in acoustics. As the talented cast delicately, dynamically and expertly navigate Rossini's beautiful music. Each cast member carves their own niche in the material; be it the bitchy insecurity of Catrin Woodruff's Elvira, the suspicious primadonnaness of Helen Stanley's Isabella or, my favourite, the sheer bonkers eccentricity of Bruno Loxton's Mustafa.  Everyone sounds amazing, the space reverberating and amplifying every note, leaving practically able to sense the soundwaves bouncing off the hard, curved walls.

It was about when Mustafa, caught up in the bizarre rhythms of 'pappatacci' fever, removes his trousers, dons a fluffy white fur coat and a Beatle wig, that I decided that this was the most loveably dopey thing I'd seen in a while. As Loxton marched up and down in his pants, uproariously booming his bass parts, I spotted a manic glint in his eye: performing this looks about as fun as it is to watch.

I said in my last review of Pop-Up Opera that it would be difficult to imagine anyone having a bad time at their shows. I stand by that; you could place this company in practically any location and a crowd would walk out smiling. That said, in this instance the location wasn't quite in harmony with the material. But hey, I can't deny that I enjoyed myself. 

This much personality and talent assembled in one company means there's a bedrock of quality they cannot sink below. I always look forward to Pop-Up Opera: they haven't disappointed yet, and I don't anticipate them doing so any time soon.


Pop-Up Opera's L'italiana in Algeri is back at the Thames Tunnel Shaft on 2-3 July 2015, then at various locations around the country. Information and tickets here.

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