In disused ice rinks and dilapidated banks, in big tops and car factories, Birmingham Opera Company has chafed against the traditional barriers between performers and audience. Go to one of its productions and you could end up with a bag over your head or a pastry in your mouth. Your seat might be a coffin, or an actor's lap. You might be chatted up, canvassed, caged or chastised. So it was odd that BOC should celebrate its 20th anniversary in the huge maw of the National Indoor Arena with an adaptation of founder Graham Vick's 2004 Arena di Verona production of La Traviata: a brutal discourse on misogyny played out under the unblinking gaze of a doll 36ft tall.
If Paul Brown's flower-strewn set seemed gratingly familiar in its mawkish reproduction of Kensington Gardens in 1997, the rush of hundreds of bodies in top hats and tails through the auditorium gave an instant charge of theatrical energy. Vick's chorus, drawn from local drama groups, choirs and karaoke bars became a leering on-stage audience for the tragedy of Violetta (Talise Trevigne), as culpable in her destruction as the paparazzi that greeted her arrival. Meanwhile, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, in its first collaboration with BOC, delivered such a finely detailed and artfully coloured account of Verdi's score under Massimiliano Stefanelli as to make one wonder why it had waited so long to play it.
For all the pizzazz of outrageous costumes and coups de théâtre – the naked doll, the walking glitter balls, the chocolate-box heart beneath the AstroTurf, the soft-porn playing cards, the male strippers, the lime green gimp masks – a successful Traviata hinges on connection. This is impossible to achieve in a space that makes the Albert Hall seem like a potting shed. Though Vick gave us plenty of memorable details in the grotesquely choreographed violence of the Gypsy Song, the ritual stuffing of money into the women's mouths, the ripping off of Violetta's wig and the authentically misspelt graffiti behind her deathbed ("bicth"), the domestic idyll of Act II was dwarfed, the characters remote.
Recklessly sprawled on the doll's house bed, Mark Wilde's sweetly phrased Alfredo seemed impossibly callow, while Mark Holland's Germont roared and barked as though unaware of his microphone. There was too much barking going on altogether, with Alison Crookendale offering a tetchy Annina. That I had any tears in my eyes in Act III was down to Trevigne's dignity. She may not have the richest sound, but her singing was thoughtful and her stillness more shocking than any amount of crudeness. Could any opera company fill the NIA? I doubt it. And I hope BOC returns to the rough and tumble of smaller venues.
The Cambridge Arts Theatre is certainly small, but any rough and tumble in English Touring Opera's production of Country Matters (aka L'infedelta delusa) was restricted to the stage. Liam Steel's production is overly busy but vivaciously acted and sweetly sung. Even with Jeni Bern singing from the wings while an indisposed Charlotte Ellett mimed the role of Vespina, it was evident that ETO's cast has been chosen as much for the blend of the ensembles as for individual virtuosity. Lorena Gore (Sandrina), Jonathan Gunthorpe (Nanni), Huw Rhys-Evans (Filippo), and Andrew Staples (Nencio) deliver Gerard McNamara's excellent translation crisply, while period instruments lend a dash a lemon to Haydn's score under Justin Doyle.
And so to Classical Star (BBC2). Hosted by twinkly cellist Matthew Barley, and adjudicated by conductors Charles Hazlewood and Jason Lai, double-bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku and Steve "I could sell that CD off the back of a lorry!" Abbott, this is the series that propels art-music into the realm of Fame Academy, America's Next Top Model and Dirty Dancing: The Time of Your Life. First 18 young musicians became nine, then seven. Now only 14-year-old saxophonist Tyler Rix, pianists Sophie Cashell (18) and Emily Hooker (19), guitarist Ian Watt (16), and bassoonist Karen Geoghegan (19) are left to compete for a contract with "the world's leading record label".
Like the five semi-finalists, Classical Star has improved over the past three weeks, focusing more on discipline and less on the fatuous notion that wanting to win is the key to success. Scales and arpeggios aside, however, this is classic reality TV, with interviews that cajole and castigate, and challenges designed to wrong-foot the most diligent student. Busking for busy shoppers in Milton Keynes, improvising with kitchen utensils, tango-dancing, devising soundtracks for films of goats, and performing in a darkened den full of exquisitely bored teens may be unorthodox forms of training, but they did explain why each week's evictions have not been put to the public vote. "Deep" was the solemn verdict of one youth on Emily's Chopin; "Shite" one shopper's response to Sophie's Bach.
Aside from the immense pleasure of imagining Alfred Brendel or Andras Schiff being made to perform Barley's tasks, the most enjoyable aspect of Classical Star has been seeing how fantastically resistant classical music is to being sexed up. What dreamy Emily, streetwise Tyler and the others have in common is their absolute respect for the craft they are learning. By the time most Big Brother contestants drag themselves out of bed for a snog or hair of the dog, the Classical Star competitors have been practising for hours. Indeed, the worst incidence of naughtiness to be seen on the series so far was when one violinist snaffled an extra 20 minutes of rehearsal time.
Will the series encourage more children to take up an instrument? Possibly, for it does at least show that kids who like Lutoslawski are not, on the whole, the freaks and geeks of popular imagination. Will it create a real Classical Star? No. Although the series is presenting itself as a passport to instant fame, each one of the semi-finalists is sensible enough to recognise that being the next Brendel or Schiff requires a greater investment than spending five weeks under the surveillance of a television camera. In that respect, they're already winners, whether they end up playing at the Musikverein or Milton Keynes.
'Country Matters', Octagon Theatre, Yeovil (01935 422884) to 6 Nov; 'Classical Star', BBC2, Tuesdays 9pm
Need to know
From the late 1840s, Giuseppe Verdi spent much of his working life in Paris. Whether he saw the first staging of 'La dame aux camélias' in February 1852 is not known, but by October he had bought a copy of Dumas' play and resolved to write an opera on the story of the consumptive courtesan, changing her name from Marguerite Gautier to Violetta Valéry. Verdi wanted the opera to be set in the present day but the management of La Fenice in Venice insisted 'La Traviata' be set in 1700 to avoid scandal. In the cinema, Dumas' heroine was famously embodied by Greta Garbo, above, in 'Camille' (1936), while Violetta's death provides the soundtrack for Julia Roberts' first trip to the opera in 'Pretty Woman' (1990).
Further reading: David Coward's translation of Alexandre Dumas' 'La dame aux camélias' (Oxford World's Classics)Reuse content