“Matt Kellett’s baritone is rich and undulating, and soprano Grace Nyandoro is warm and bright”
La Bohème is basically the opera equivalent of Romeo and Juliet: a tragic love story, very accessible and (therefore) very overdone. If you’ve seen one opera, chances are very high that it’s this one. So I completely understand the impetus to upheave the production and give the audience something entirely unexpected. Director Mark Ravenhill has tried just that, setting up, not in nineteenth century Paris, but in a doctor’s staff room at a modern-day hospital.
I find this slightly confusing, because whilst we preface the opera with a scene in which Mimi is in a hospital surrounded by healthcare professionals in scrubs, the opening act of the actual opera has everyone playing their usual roles, one an artist, the other a writer, in their shared flat. Except, they’re still in the hospital staff room, still in scrubs. So presumably this is Mimi’s hallucination? It’s not entirely clear. And not to go on, but if you’re going to change the setting can’t you find an equally romantic replacement? Nineteenth century bohemian Paris is hard to beat, I’ll concede, but a hospital staff room, depressingly decorated with a bit of Christmas tinsel, is especially bleak.
As has come to be expected with King’s Head opera, the script has been entirely re-written with only occasional nods to the original. “Your tiny hand is frozen, let me warm it in mine”, for example, is now “Relax, your hands are freezing, we could just chill out for now”. There’s something slightly less placable about the contemporary script: where you might forgive a silly back-and-forth sung in Italian, or even a more formal English, it doesn’t sound quite so good sung in the modern vernacular: “Hey mate/Where’ve you been?/I got held up.” Or rather it simply plays for laughs, which gets a bit boring after a while.
So that’s all the naysaying, I think. The performances themselves are sublime. We’re warned at the start of the evening that someone is singing through a cold, but I don’t quite catch who, and whilst I might have my suspicions (a few ‘M’s turn vaguely to ‘B’s) I really couldn’t say for sure because all four singers are absolutely stunning. The two tenors, Philip Lee and Daniel Koek, both particularly shine in their dulcet falsettos; Matt Kellett’s baritone is rich and undulating, and soprano Grace Nyandoro is warm and bright. There’s a slight lack of sexual chemistry between Lee and Koek, but their caring for one another is believable enough, so that’ll do. Kellett and Nyandoro get the biggest laughs, unafraid to be physical and silly- at one point, Nyandoro has Kellett by his lanyard, walking him on all fours like a dog.
Co-writers Eaton and Lee have also tweaked the story to be a same-sex relationship (Mimi’s real name is now Lucas rather than Lucia) which works without a hitch- I can’t think of anything lost by doing this and it’s something rarely- perhaps never- seen in old operas. But I do wish that, rather than a hyper realistic Grindr match, it had been truer to the bohemian romance of the original with a genuine meet-cute.
With opera traditionally un-miked, it’s often actually quite hard to hear what anyone is saying, so performing in a little room like the King’s Head is absolutely ideal to really hear the singers. The modernising of the story is slightly convoluted, and loses a lot of the aesthetic romance usually inbuilt. But it doesn’t take away from the beautiful performances, nor the heart-breaking end.
“a refreshing change from all the Dick Whittingtons and Christmas Carols on offer this holiday season”
The latest seasonal offering from the Charles Court Opera is Beowulf, billed as an “epic panto.” It has just opened at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, and is sure to please fans of the Company’s work. For those new to the Charles Court Opera—come ready to watch a show that is as subversive as it is entertaining. The cast of six take on Beowulf with just the right amount of energy and enthusiasm and, true to the traditions of panto, provide plenty of moments for the audience to join in the fun.
The first of several surprises awaiting the audience is watching what writer and director John Savournin has done to the original story. This Beowulf takes a radical departure from the Anglo Saxon text to bring us a sensitive, compassionate hero and a kick ass fashionista princess who doesn’t need any help protecting her kingdom, thank you very much. The next surprise is that it’s still in verse a lot of the time (if you can call doggerel poetry). The text goes into battle at every opportunity armed with outrageous puns and double entendre. The Charles Court Opera’s Beowulf is a singing, dancing, updated panto that is an alluring, full throttle parody of every monster story you’ve ever loved to hate. It also has a happy ending. Last, but certainly not least, this show is full of themes that will resonate with LGBTQIA audiences everywhere.
That’s not to say that the production is totally flawless. Beowulf does get off to a slow start as the performers, heavily cloaked, file on stage. The weightiness continues as the cast intones the first lines of the poem—in Anglo-Saxon. Then we meet the main characters, and suddenly everything becomes lighter—and a lot more fun. As Beowulf reverts to modern English, we discover that Beowulf has only arrived at Princess Hrothmund’s hall to play hero because of family pressure. Sound familiar? In reality, our hero is a chill guy who’s more into making friends than monster slaying. More importantly, his best friend Wiglaff is in love with him, and is trying to find the right moment to declare himself. Writer Savournin adds a greatly misunderstood monster in Grendel (who is also looking for friends—and his missing father). This Grendel just needs the right hero to come along to take him camping. Yes, this Beowulf is delightfully camp, and the cast make the most of it. Matthew Kellett (Beowulf) makes a sympathetic anti-hero, but the stand out performances come from Emily Cairns as Wiglaff, and Jennie Jacobs as Grendel’s Mother. Philip Lee as Grendel and Julia Mariko Smith as Princess Hrothmund strut their stuff in flamboyant costumes, (designed by Stewart J Charlesworth) despite the formidable competition from Grendel’s Mamma. The quality of the singing is so good that it does make one wonder from time to time if the production has escaped from a major opera house only to re-emerge in a small, dark pub theatre. And it is a pub theatre sized show, so there are also moments when one feels Savournin needs to rein in his enthu-siastic company (and his imagination) before the whole thing goes off the rails—but what the heck, it’s panto. Of course he can throw a dragon into the mix if he wants to.
The Charles Court Opera’s Beowulf is a refreshing change from all the Dick Whittingtons and Christmas Carols on offer this holiday season, so don’t hesitate to take the family (or the office party) to the King’s Head for a show that hits all the right notes. You’ll never see Beowulf quite the same way again.