The Paradis Files
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed – 13th April 2022
“a memorable piece”
Graeae Theatre Company presents a new chamber opera by Errollyn Wallen, libretto by Nicola Werenowska and Selina Mills, directed by Jenny Sealey, and conducted by Andrea Brown. The performance is a celebration of inclusivity with a mixed ensemble of disabled and non-disabled performers.
There are two sets of period furniture on either side of the stage (Designer Bernadette Roberts). A striking white harpsichord at centre stage turns out to be a model with a dummy keyboard. Illuminated cabinets provide an entrance to the action on one side and a costume rail on the other. A third illuminated cabinet suspended above the band is revealed as the surtitle screen. These surtitles, welcome despite the opera being sung in English, are displayed in stylish fonts on a parchment background.
The main characters are Hilde, the Baroness von Paradis (Maureen Brathwaite, soprano), and her daughter, the blind pianist and composer Maria Theresia (Bethan Langford, mezzo-soprano). The starting point of the opera may have been to bring out from obscurity Theresia’s successful life story against the odds. But the soul at its centre is the relationship between a mother and her daughter.
Composer Errollyn Wallen endeavours to evoke the sounds of both ‘posh’ and ‘street’ Vienna so the onstage band (musicians of the BBC Concert Orchestra) includes accordion alongside piano, violin, double bass, and drums/percussion. Wallen’s style for the piece is difficult to place; there are elements of the classical period (as befits the era of Salieri and Mozart) but also contemporary spikiness and other elements of jazz, swing and rock. A motif made up of piano scales and exercises represents the necessary practice at the keyboard for Theresia to make it as a musician.
An enterprising technique involving a quartet of Gossips (Ella Taylor, Andee-Louise Hypolite, Ben Thapa, & Omar Ebrahim) spells out what is happening in the plot – a form of musical audio description – and moves the action forward. Much of their onstage antics which includes playing air guitar in one scene and some comedic dancing in another is regrettably obscured from view behind the furniture.
Two stand out scenes are the visits of doctors to cure Theresia from her blindness – “binding, pinning, cutting, lighting” – the onstage action does not need to be graphic for us to understand the torture that goes on here. And the moment of enlightenment that follows as Theresia understands she can find a future for herself despite everything, “I know I am limitless”.
The importance of inclusivity within the production is highlighted with the integral roles of the two Performance Interpreters (Chandrika Gopalakrishnan and Max Marchewicz). Not only do they BSL sign the words throughout the performance but they take an active part in the action too. Ms Brathwaite may sing about slapping her daughter, but it is Chandrika who is doing the slapping. The whole company signs together as they sing ‘The Blind Enchantress’ – a nickname given to Paradis during the English leg of her European tour.
The opera is well played and sung throughout. Bethan Langford and Maureen Brathwaite are particularly excellent and provide the most moving moments of the performance. The ensemble combines well together despite some clumsy moments. Whether the libretto tells the story it intended to, I am unsure, but as a showcase of what is possible to achieve despite disability, Graeae Theatre have created a memorable piece of work.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Patrick Baldwin
The Paradis Files
Queen Elizabeth Hall until 14th April then UK tour continues
Other shows reviewed by Phillip this year: