9 August 2013

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2013 Day Three was the best yet

My brave decision to go to as many operas as reasonably possible in Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival 2013 is proving to be wise and my third evening there was even better than the good first two.

Fossils and Monsters was a mixed bag of mixed bags with two different musical scenes and two different singing scenes. If that sounds unusual, well it was.

The first scene was musical with two clarinets hidden behind a black wall making vaguely medieval sounds. If anything, it reminded me of Michael Nyman. As an overture it was pleasant enough but rather long with three movements when one would have done.

For the first singing scene brought Alison Wells to tell us about Mary Anning who was famous, apparently, for her work with the fossils she collected at Lyme Regis. This was sung nicely without accompaniment and with great expression.

The second musical scene was more fractured with the two clarinets exchange squawks and squeaks. The two musicians, Ian Mitchell and Catriona Scott, slowly edged on and off the stage to prove that they were real and to give us something other than a black wall to look at. Again this was OK but a little longer than I would have preferred.

For the final scene Alison Wells returned to tell us about Mary Shelley, this time accompanied by some electronic music. There was even more passion this time as she mourned the death of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The Garden was JG Ballard set to music, and that is high praise.

To emphasise the dystopia we were led to a small community centre in the nearby council estate, a short walk made the more dramatic by the presence of a large number of policemen chasing somebody.

The community centre became the living room and kitchen of a couple. He is struggling at work to get on to an important sub-committee and she is suffering from a mental illness for which she takes pills.

The world outside, we gradually learn, is facing the real crisis of overpopulation and the loss of productive lane while inside we learn, or suspect, that they lost a child once.

In to this double chaos a plant emerges, growing through the lino from the concrete floor. This is a third thing for the couple to cope with and it is a mix of hope and threat.

Eventually the true extent of the dystopia becomes apparent to them and us.

Everything about the production was excellent, stimulating and intense. Pauline Knowles and Alan McHugh sang and acted marvellously which made it easy to engage with them and their plight. Emerging in to the real world afterwards felt as strange as entering in to theirs had earlier.

Vivienne shared some of the structure of Fossils and Monsters with a lone female voice, Clare McCaldin, telling us the story of TS Eliot's first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

Rather like the play Vanessa and Virginia (Wolfe) this was a life of ups and downs told with great care and expresion.

Early on we had the happy days of the Vivienne dancing to the popular tunes of the day, along the way we heard about her affair with "Bertie" Russell and her story ended in an asylum.

The subject matter and the structure of the performance were intelligently handled and would have made this a good show on their own. What lifted it to the exceptional was the performance by Clare McCaldin who sang and acted with such grace, beauty, humour and despair.

If I had to pick a best show of the festival so far, which is never a fair thing to do because of the diversity, then it would have to be Vivienne.

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