Miss Fortune, Royal Opera House, London
The Barber of Seville, Hackney Empire, London
Eugene Onegin, Hackney Empire, London
Judith Weir's rare failure is an inner-city Cinderella story that never lifts off ... unlike the kebab van
Sunday 18 March 2012
Based on a Sicilian folk tale, Judith Weir's latest opera, Miss Fortune, toys airily with the contemporary terrors of financial and social collapse. Its heroine (Emma Bell), bright as a penny and innocent as a lamb, is a tourist in the mean streets of an unnamed, blighted city. Like the Greek heiress in Pulp's "Common People", she wants to see what real life is about. Eschewing the air-lift extended to her plutocrat parents when they flee a mob of enraged investors in the wake of a crash, she decides to "start at the bottom and work my way up". Unfortunately, many jobs are all bottom, no top.
Bell's generous, candid performance cannot make Miss Fortune grow or breathe. Plagued by Fate (Andrew Watts) and his hooded gang of inline skaters and break-dancing vandals (dance troupe Soul Mavericks), our flame-haired heroine watches helplessly as the livelihoods of Hassan the kebab-van owner (Noah Stewart) and several dozen migrant seamstresses are ruined, takes refuge in a launderette run by mystical Donna (Anne-Marie Owens), then wins the lottery and the love of Simon (Jacques Imbrailo), a handsome property developer with a fetish for perfectly ironed shirts. If there is irony at play, it is well hidden. Miss Fortune is little more than an inner-city Cinderella story and attempts no critique of the problems it uses as plot devices. Do migrant workers shrug and move on when their factories are burnt down? Not if their kids are at the local school, not if they haven't saved enough to move themselves and their dependants back home. As to using street dance to represent gang violence ... words fail me.
This is a morality tale without a moral. Philosophically, we are somewhere between a horoscope (evoked in the first scene), a fortune cookie and a "Shit Happens!" bumper sticker. Musically, too, there are significant problems. Weir offers a sequence of exquisitely orchestrated sketches: a Fauvist smear of acidic woodwind over grumbling basses, Restoration word-painting for the blustering panic of Lord Fortune (Alan Ewing), a cocktail party murmur of tinkling piano, hints of Bartok, Berg, Wagner and Schoenberg, a tart work-song, a dewy aubade, nostalgic shreds of Gershwin, a hiccupy, homely motif for our naive heroine, some turgid amplified chorus writing. Some of it is very beautiful but nothing connects, develops, provokes, persuades.
Every new opera is a gamble. Sadly, Miss Fortune is a conspicuous failure from a composer known for her successes. Overall, there is a Tippett-esque sense of modish ciphers drifting expensively across a stage; of good intentions and accidental hubris. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and conducted by Paul Daniel, a fine cast of singers and dancers is left boogieing joylessly in front of designer Tom Pye's glamorous abstracts of metal and light and the famous exploding kebab van – a little richer after the lottery win but absolutely no wiser.
With new productions of Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis and Peter Maxwell Davies's The Lighthouse lined up for the autumn, English Touring Opera has turned to the classics for its spring tour. Styled in sherbet pastels by designer Rhys Jarman, Thomas Guthrie's gently irreverent production of The Barber of Seville features a chorus of line-dancing bearded ladies (actually men), some hair-raising medical procedures in Dr Bartolo's consulting room, some startling accelerandi from conductor Paul McGrath, and a gloriously stroppy Rosina from young mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately. Purists may purse their lips at the broadness of Guthrie's humour, but the second-night audience at the Hackney Empire was in stitches. Nicholas Sharratt's charming Almaviva and Grant Doyle's urbane Figaro (doubling on guitar for Almaviva's serenade) work well together, while Cheryl Enever is a scene-stealing Berta, but the evening belongs to Andrew Slater's Bartolo, grotesque and vulnerable in exactly the right measures. Smart support from Alan Fairs (Basilio), Toby Girling (Fiorello) and the bearded ladies makes for a crisply enunciated romp in which Rossini's repetitions have comedic kick.
The first night of a revival of James Conway's 2007 ETO production of Eugene Onegin – still one of the best in recent years – was handsomely sung by Sarah-Jane Davies (Tatyana), Nicholas Lester (Onegin) and Jaewoo Kim (Lensky) but all three principals remained remote and diffident. The strongest singing comes from Niamh Kelly (Olga) and Andrew Glover (Triquet), while veteran Frances McCafferty (Filippyevna) manages to communicate more about her character's life in service, the life of the Larina family, and the opera's cycle of heartbreaks and compromises in the way Filippyevna quietly inspects and polishes an apple than any number of more extrovert gestures from the younger performers.
'Miss Fortune' (020-7304 4000), to 28 Mar; 'The Barber of Seville'/'Eugene Onegin', Northcott, Exeter (01392 493493) from 20 Mar, then touring
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