Preview: Opera in the City Festival

The Arts are steadily moving east in London. Nicholas Hytner is launching his new 900-seat theatre at Tower Bridge this autumn: it’s been 80 years since London theatre received such a large new forum for performance. Dalston and Hackney are brimming as ever with pop-up arts opportunities, but closer than trendy East London, the City is now broadening its arts menu with a new two-week opera festival, Opera in the City, at the Bridewell Theatre, part of an historic educational and social space dating back to the 1890s. It’s exciting to see six new opera productions (three of them contemporary works) reaching the City, where classical music usually lurks demurely in historic churches for a tasteful lunchtime concert or two, before scurrying away well before the bars open.

The first evening of this new festival offers us two two-handed operas, for male and female voices respectively, from Time Zone Theatre‘s ‘Fin de Siècle’ project – producing new, contemporary stagings for works composed around 1900. Mozart and Salieri is Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1897 setting of Pushkin’s verse drama of 1830, charting the alleged rivalry between the two great composers which supposedly led Salieri to poison Mozart (also inspiration for Peter Schaffer’s play, and the 1984 film, Amadeus). Expect plenty of tension and high drama from baritone Nick Dwyer and tenor Roger Paterson across two short scenes. We move from vicious jealousy to tragic self-sacrifice with Zanetto: if things had worked out differently, the traditional pairing for Cavalleria Rusticana might not have been I Pagliacci, but Mascagni’s own Zanetto (1896), a wildly romantic one-act scena lirica (lyric scene) between two sopranos about love which is pure, absolute, and doomed never to be experienced in full. However, Zanetto (though well received critically) was considered too delicate in scale to work on the barn-like stages of grand opera houses: this smaller setting should suit it nicely. The wealthy, lonely Silvia has despaired of love all her life, when the minstrel Zanetto wanders past; they fall in love instantly, yet Silvia bids him travel on, refusing to reveal her identity and accept the happiness love offers. It’s an ecstatic duel of beauty and pain, through music, between two female voices: soprano Becca Marriott and mezzo-soprano Sophie Goldrick will have their work cut out.

If you’re looking for something lighter, Andrew Bain’s Lanza sees the famous singer in a hospital in Rome, his best arias flashing through his mind – and across our stage – as a crackling Caruso record sparks his memories. Expect a meditation on the nature of fame, via a nice excuse to revive Lanza tenor favourites from opera and beyond. With Bain both writer and performer, this should be an interesting example of crossover work focusing on a key character in opera’s wider cultural history.

“…A house /Lacking a host is but an empty thing /And void of honour…” Although Oscar Wilde never actually finished A Florentine Tragedy, the dark simplicity of its Renaissance plot (Florentine merchant Simone finds a prince, Guido Bardi, in bed with his wife Bianca, feigns hospitality, challenges Bardi to a fatal duel, and thus reignites Bianca’s love and their marriage) has inspired no less than three operatic treatments, of which Zemlinsky’s 1917 opera is the most famous. Nick Dwyer and Becca Marriott are joined by tenor Lawrence Thackeray for what should be an intense production, another offering from Time Zone Theatre’s ‘Fin de Siècle’ project, sung in English with piano accompaniment. ​​​​

Opera in the City closes with a double bill of new works: Even you, lights, cannot hear me by Simone Spagnolo, and Sarah Toth’s Nero Monologues. Spagnolo’s work is inspired by a monologue (in a new translation) from Chekhov’s The Seagull, and will be “Exploring a futuristic and elegiac vision of the end of time… Scored for two opera singers doubling on piano and pebbles”. Soprano Kate Symonds-Joy and baritone James Schouten will be setting out on Spagnolo’s experimental adventure. Sarah Toth both creates and performs her ‘pastiche chamber opera’ Nero Monologues. Pasticcio is a form favoured by Handel (among other composers), where you unite a series of arias by various different hands into a single work: Toth takes the Emperor Nero’s final hour as a moment to explore his (by then very fractured) mind via Monteverdi, Handel, Copland, a rare piece of Hungarian music by György Kurtág, The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, and portions of Peter James Learn’s Walt Whitman’s Songs: That Which Fills its Place (European premiere). The music is layered with spoken poetry from Geoffrey Lehmann’s fascinating collection Nero’s poems: translations of the public and private poems of the Emperor Nero (1981), which Lehmann intended to be “true to Nero’s psychology” rather than any words the emperor may have written.

With an emphasis on the fresh and contemporary, a spectrum of works from light to dark, and showcasing some exciting young talent, the first Opera in the City has much on offer: definitely worth exploring alongside London’s more established fringe opera festivals, Tête à Tête and Grimeborn.

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