Varjak Paw

Julian Philips
Varjak Paw – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Kit Hesketh-Harvey after S. F. Said’s “Varjak Paw” and “The Outlaw Varjak Paw” [London premiere]

Grandmother / Holly – Lisa Crosato
Julius / Cludge – Simon Wilding
Varjak Paw – Akiya Henry
Jalal the Paw / Elyza – Tim Mead
Tam / Malisha – Annabelle Williams
Sally Bones – Alinka Kozári
Razor – George Ikediashi
Luger – Kevin Kyle

The Opera Group Ensemble
Gerry Cornelius

John Fulljames – Director
Rhys Jarman – Designer
Bruno Poet – Lighting Designer
Natasha Khamjani – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 25 September, 2008
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Varjak Paw. Photograph: world premiere of Julian Philips’s “Varjak Paw” was held at The Haymarket, Basingstoke on 11 September this year. Since then it has been to Oxford and Poole and is scheduled to go on to Aldeburgh, Cardiff and Warwick.

“One Small Cat, One Big City ” is the tag line for this opera aimed squarely at children. The simple idea is that a Mesopotamian Blue (Varjak Paw) climbs over a garden wall of her house and explores the city, meeting varied characters and enjoying adventures – as one imagines cats do when they wander off for hours at a time during the night. The adventures serve as a means of ‘discovering one’s self’ so as to acquire maturity and to triumph over obstacles such as prejudice.

The story itself is an overload of characters, and having everything sung a barrier, especially to the many small children in the audience; there needs to be more speaking to illustrate the narrative. The musical language, too, is over-complicated: countertenor Tim Mead’s superb voice probably came as a huge surprise to the little ones.

Varjak Paw. Photograph: story rattles along too fast. The conflation of two stories into one is the problem; a good idea to scrap a few ‘adventures’ and have the whole thing done in an hour. As it is the first half is taken up with recitative whereas all the best tunes come late in the two-hour score. Some of the characters are bizarre, freakish creations, and whilst children may not understand what is going on, they must have marvelled at the fiendish Scratch Sisters (one a man in drag), who behaved like man-eating prostitutes.

Most of the singing is impressive. Tim Read stands out. His voice rang clearly throughout the auditorium with his acting giving supreme stateliness to the mythic Jalal. Also impressive was Lisa Crosato, whose high mezzo tackled with aplomb the coloratura passages. The rest of the cast was suitably supporting, with Simon Wilding as Cludge a great presence, but as Varjak Paw, Akiya Henry was woefully miscast. Her voice was out of place (she could not sing at the premiere because of a throat infection) and I wonder if she has not recovered – she made unpleasant listening.

The staging is minimal but sufficient to indicate changing settings. Most of the creative imagination went into the wonderful costumes for the different gangs of cats, which all looked great fun.

  • Further performances at the Linbury on 26 & 27 September at 7 p.m.; and at 3 p.m. on 27 & 28 September
  • 4 & 5 October at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh
  • 30 October to 1 November at Warwick Arts Centre

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