Workshopping is all the rage in experimental opera at present, and Tete a tete - with a distinguished history of making magic with limited means – has workshopped Circus Tricks in a wide variety of contexts, with numerous transformations.
One of its transitional titles was The Agony of the Knife-thrower’s Assistant, which underlines its premise now. We are promised that it will ‘evoke the passion, sorrow, dreams, and desperation’ of a bunch of circus performers, all of whom will ‘reach their own crises’. And when the lights go up on Tim Meacock’s designs for Bill Bankes-Jones’s production, things look promising, with a set comprising the essentials of a circus studded with giant polka dots. We meet the Trick Pony – convincingly animated by tenor Christopher Diffey –then two strongmen, the knife-thrower and his assistant, a contortionist, and a trapeze artist (soprano Yvette Bonner) who moves like the most exquisite Degas dancer. And the little orchestra (each player crested with gaudy feathers) strikes up.
And how. Under Gerry Cornelius’s brisk direction the Chroma ensemble make a wonderfully merry din, in a style which is curiously familiar. And when the Pony starts singing, followed by the Trapeze Artist and the others, we realise the sound-world we are in: Michael Henry’s music is pure Stravinsky, and the vocal lines could have come straight out of his chamber opera The Rake’s Progress. But there is a crucial difference, in that Stravinsky’s arias powerfully propel his plot, whereas Henry’s don’t seem to go anywhere, and neither does Adey Grummet’s libretto. All the characters have their moment in the spotlight, with some nice jokes along the way, the central one being that the mechanics of their stage act are the burden of each character’s song, but that joke soon wears thin. After two (long) hours there is a denouement, but it’s pretty factitious.
What pleasures there are come thanks to the performers, all of whom sing and move with infectious conviction; counter-tenor Daniel Keating-Roberts and mezzo Lily Papaioannou are outstanding. Meanwhile Yvette Bonner and Christopher Diffey would make excellent principals in the real Rake’s Progress. Come to think of it, what we have here is a cast of singers and musicians who have all the talents required for that great opera. Worth a go?