On False Perspective – opera to a libretto by Benjamin Osborn Algirdas Kraunaitis
The Bet – opera to a libretto by the composer Lewis Murphy
Now – opera to a libretto by Laura Attridge Hunter Coblentz
Hogarth's Bastards – opera to a libretto by Jordan O'Connor Edwin Hillier
Serpentine, or The Analysis of Beauty – opera to a libretto by Edward Allen
On False Perspective
Professor – Jerome Knox
The Raver – Rebecca Hardwick
Reader – Katie Coventry
Barista – Nick Pritchard
Mathematician – Keith Pun
Cait Frizzel (soprano), Melisande Froidure-Lavoine (alto), Daniel Farrimond (tenor), Julien van Mellaerts (baritone), Matthew Buswell (bass)
Alice – Rose Stachniewska
Ruby – Laure Poissonnier
Sarah – Charlotte Howes
Tim – William Wallace
Rupert – James Davies
Don Giovanni – Tai Oney
Donna Anna – Gemma Summerfield
Donna Elvira – Ranveig Karadottir
Don Ottavio – Craig Jackson
Commendatore – Simon Grange
Serpentine, or The Analysis of Beauty
Architect – Nicholas Morton
Ida – Elizabeth Holmes
Will – Peter Aisher
Louche – Mark Nathan
Curl – Cait Frizzell
Coil – Rachel Bowden
Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Bill Bankes-Jones – Director
Sarah Booth – Designer
Royal College of Music – Hogarth's Stages [in association with Tête a Tête Opera]
Friday, May 16, 2014 Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London
Reviewed by Hannah Sander
The Royal College of Music, in association with Tête a Tête opera company, presented an evening of five original short operas, composed and performed by its students. The five new works, each at around fifteen minutes in length, draw inspiration from the paintings and etchings of William Hogarth, all the while studiously avoiding reference to Stravinsky’s classic homage – The Rake’s Progress. Conducted by Tim Murray, and with direction from Tête a Tête’s Bill Bankes-Jones, the five pieces are remarkably different in style and approach.
On False Perspective is by Josephine Stephenson and with a debut libretto by Benjamin Osborn. By day a songwriter and musical director, Osborn has produced a strange and quite beautiful text, inspired by Hogarth’s engraving A Satire on False Perspective. This etching shows a confused world in which light and distance follow their own movement. In Osborn’s libretto, a cafe of hung-over coffee-drinkers is bemused by water that flows upwards from a tap, and they recall a previous night’s rave in which dancers fell through cracks of light in the floor. After a confusing first half, the second part of the piece depicts two young caffeine-imbibers – a Reader and a Mathematician – attempting to declare love across a room. It was a touching scene set to music sensitively by Stephenson.
Next, The Bet, with music and libretto by undergraduate Algirdas Kranaitis; the music the more convincing element of the two. An active, bustling score set the scene as a pair of friends challenge each other in a Mozartean bet. A tenor, sung by Daniel Farrimond (none of the characters is given a name), has fallen happily in love. His friend, a wonderfully smug Julien van Mellaerts, declares that all men are weak and that he can prove this by offering money. There followed a slightly unconvincing but well-performed sequence of characters whose moral standing dissolves once they hear rumours of money. Cait Frizzell as the soprano sang particularly well, although with an unexplained American accent. Mellaerts’s suit-clad cynic returned at intervals, grinning in a suitably Hogarthian manner as he duly won his bet.
The Bet and On False Pespective deserved better staging from professional director Bankes-Jones. The stage was often cluttered, and the audience was distracted from more intimate moments by slightly chaotic movement occurring in the background.
Lewis Murphy’s Now, with a libretto by Laura Attridge, was the most musically distinctive opera. It was also the piece that drifted furthest from the eighteenth-century world of Hogarth, and was more akin to H. G. Wells or George Orwell. The piece takes place in a dystopian city in which characters in stark black-and-electric-blue costumes hid in corners, whispering about revolution. In the use of bells and the eeriness of the score, the opera recalls James MacMillan and the Royal College of Music’s most lauded student, Benjamin Britten. This was a still, slow work. The direction was strong, in particular an effective use of silhouettes to depict the faceless, nameless crowd milling in the shadows of this taut world.
Hogarth’s Bastards, by contrast, was brilliantly bold, crude and fast. Jordan O’Connor’s libretto was laugh-out-loud funny, the cast of Gemma Summerfield, Rennveig Karadottir, Craig Jackson, Simon Grange and above all Tai Oney as a countertenor Don Giovanni, showed excellent comic timing and all sang well. This was a tribute to Mozart served up with plenty of love. A cast of opera singers trapped in the worst-ever performance of Mozart’s opera turn on each other in the dressing room. The music begins as a sprightly Mozartean accompaniment and by the end of the piece swells to a Debussian Romantic wash of colour. Both composer and librettist showed themselves to be very talented.
The final work of the set was genuinely scary. Edwin Hillier’s score employs modernist effects to a deeply unsettling libretto from Edward Allen. Like Attridge’s Now, the piece is set in a totalitarian world, here a nightclub in which all dancers must bend their bodies into curves. Hogarth’s “line of beauty” from his treatise on The Analysis of Beauty was given clear sexual undertones, as a pair of stiff lovers is forced by the gyrating dancers around them to contort themselves into curving, undulating lines. Musically, the work is heavy going. The characters often sing in broken, disjointed words, repeating a syllable as though it were a stammer, twisting as they did so, their limbs lit by electric lights stuck to their clothes while the rest is in near-darkness. It is a very effective piece, if disturbing, and made more enjoyable by Elizabeth Holmes’s performance as the priggish heroine Ida.
As a collection, this proved a worthwhile set of works by promising young talent. Admittedly, the influence of Hogarth is slight: the artist is there for initial inspiration and no more. As an exercise in collaboration the project is a great success.