Glyndebourne Touring Opera at Linbury Theatre – The Yellow Sofa

Julian Philips
The Yellow Sofa – a chamber opera in one act to a libretto by Edward Kemp after the novella Alves e Companhia by Eça Quirós

Amarela, a yellow sofa – Lauren Easton
Godofredo Alves – Michael Wallace
Machado – Andrew Dickinson
Ludovino – Gabriela Istoc
Margarida – Sioned Gwen Davies
Neto – Alexander Robin Baker
Teresa – Charlotte Beament
Carvalho – Benjamin Cahn
Medeiros – Frederick Long
Nunes Vidal – Gareth Huw John

Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra
Gareth Hancock

Frederic Wake-Walker – Director
Andrew May – Lighting Designer
Kitty Callister – Designer

Reviewed by: Hannah Sander

Reviewed: 5 November, 2012
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The Yellow Sofa, Glyndebourne Touring Opera at Linbury Theatre, November 2012. Photograph: Robert WorkmanJulian Philips’s The Yellow Sofa was originally heard in 2009, when it formed the culmination of his three-year residency at Glyndebourne. He was the opera-house’s first Composer in Residence. Over the course of three years he wrote several short operas which, like this one, where designed to show off the abilities of Glyndebourne’s opera chorus. An extraordinary number of young, vocally agile performers flock to Lewes for the summer months; and the list of former chorus members who have since found fame as a soloist is impressively long. The Yellow Sofa contains beefy roles for a decent clutch of the current group. There are ten voices in all, of whom five play leading roles and one – Lauren Easton’s eponymous yellow sofa – is the focus of the night.

Edward Kemp and Julian Philips began their reinterpretation of a much-loved Portuguese story of adultery occurring upon said sofa by giving it a voice. For the tight-lipped Lisbon businessman, the one extravagant gesture in life has been to gift his wife a large yellow chaise. Returning home on his wedding anniversary, he stumbles upon his wife and his business partner, Machado, in a compromising position on the sofa. Flustered, he banishes his wife to her father’s house and challenges his business partner to a duel, which never takes place: at the end of eighty minutes, everyone decides to pretend the affair never happened.

Benjamin Cahn as Carvalho with  Alexander Robin Baker as Neto (The Yellow Sofa, Glyndebourne Touring Opera at Linbury Theatre, November 2012). Photograph: Robert WorkmanProviding the yellow sofa with a voice was unwise. Philips’s programme note suggests that they sought “to strip [the] story down to Godofredo’s psychological journey”, and to allow “the city of Lisbon and its distinctive tradition of urban folk song, Fado, to inform the musical texture throughout”, achieved by writing a lengthy, folk-styled aria for the sofa that returns several times. Dramatically, the addition of a busty woman clad in sofa-covered material and performing with almost x-rated sensuality is distracting. The implications, that the sofa is in some way responsible for the adultery that took place upon its cushions, or perhaps represents the physical state of the adulterers, are inconsistent with both staging and scoring. Alves’s wife is a demure, pale little thing, with Gabriela Istoc performing her high staccato passages as delicate, birdlike prods; a nice contrast to Easton’s gooey mezzo voice as the sexualised sofa.

In the passages written for Ludovina, Alves’s wife, Philips’s writing is outstanding. He has worked on theatre productions, most noticeably in partnerships with Michael Grandage, including The Tempest with Derek Jacobi. Philips’s ability to create atmosphere is best revealed in his scoring of passages such as the beginning – the uncoiling of springs in the sofa, heard in soft glissandos for the strings – or in the dreamt appearance of Ludovina partway through, which echoes Hollywood horror in its twinkling piano. Stripping the orchestra down to strings, piano and percussion, Philips finds plenty of textural variety over the intimate eighty minutes of the work.

Philips has become known for employing a collage style, a multiplicity of voices and styles within a single work, and The Yellow Sofa is the apotheosis of this technique. From Portuguese folk-music to sunny American minimalism, from Benjamin Britten to Stephen Sondheim, he weaves together pastiche after pastiche. The result is unsatisfactory and somehow anonymous, although masterful in technical control and beautifully gossamer-thin at time. The veins of farce and tragedy in the plot invite treatment by Ravel or Mozart: here they split apart.

Frederic Wake-Walker’s direction proved an irritation: too busy, too puerile and lacking emotional resonance. However, the design and the elegant, subtle costumes are fantastic. The Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra, visible throughout, performed extremely well, a modern counterpart to the vanilla-coloured period-drama costumes of the cast.

Visually compelling, with strong singing across the board, The Yellow Sofa suffers for its uneven libretto and patchwork score. Keep hold of the programme, however: the chances are high that one of the singers will be a household name before too long.

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