West End Girl, King's Head, Islington, London Chorzelski / Apekisheva, Wigmore Hall, London
Dream Hunter, Wilton's Music Hall, London
A cleverly updated version of Puccini's Wild West opera sees a lovelorn innocent fall prey to a feckless drug dealer
Sunday 12 February 2012
Hailed as the first American opera at its 1910 premiere in New York, Puccini's Gold Rush drama La fanciulla del West is stripped back to the Godardesque essentials of a girl and a gun in Robert Chevara and Kfir Yefet's West End Girl. Instead of a saloon, a log cabin and a forest, we have an internet café, a tower block and a car park. Instead of an orchestra rich with the numinous greys and golds of Wagner and Debussy, an intimate reduction for piano and viola. How much has changed? Very little.
What makes Puccini's pioneers human is their dreams. For Bosnian labourer Yuri (Matthew Stiff), Russian barman Nik (Edmund Hastings) and the Montenegrin heavy Sonora (Simon Meadows), it's the homesick agony of a broken Skype connection and a sentimental song ("Che faranno i vecchi miei") on cable TV. For Polish drug-runner Johnson (Adam Crockatt), the shame of an inescapable past. For Albanian boss-man Jack Rock (Tom Bullard), the memory of "a little house beside the Baltic sea" [sic]. Chevara and Yefet should consult an atlas – Albania is on the Adriatic and Ionian seas – but their rewrite retains the poignancy of the original.
All creamy cleavage and pedagogical zeal, Laura Parfitt's Minnie (Stafford Demelza takes the role at some performances) has gone straight from pre-teen to mother hen. It's a handsome, healthy, gleaming voice, and a performance in which nothing is left to chance. Her internet café is a "school for the workers", the bible readings replaced by lessons for the UK citizenship test. Cleverly sourced by designer Nikolai Hart Hensen, her bedroom is a 1980s time-capsule, with posters of Jason and Kylie. In this setting, her cherished, much-advertised virginity seems even more neurotic.
When Minnie allows herself to be kissed by Johnson, melting into his lying lips, the lifeless fuchsia fairy-lights strung about her bunk-bed glow in a halo of harmonics from the viola. It's a lovely moment but I think she'd be happier with a puppy or a pony. From the first expletive to the Lock, Stock ... showdown in the car park, West End Girl illustrates the best and worst of OperaUpClose, the rough and the ready. The direction is tight, the language demotic, the designs witty, the acting strong. Parfitt excepted, none of the cast is ready to take their roles to bigger venues, though the ensembles are sweetly modulated. Baltic or Balkan, the homesick migrants steal the show.
Violist Krzysztof Chorzelski and pianist Katya Apekisheva's Wigmore Hall programme had all the wistfulness of West End Girl, though its arc was less steady and its language more refined. So bleak and spare is Shostakovich's 1975 Viola Sonata that Britten's Lachrymae sounds trite beside it, a Tudorbethan riff, most interesting when it leaves the contours of its principle source, Dowland's "If my complaints could passions move", and pecks instead at a single, bitter fragment from "Flow my tears".
It is always fascinating to hear a player best known for their ensemble work making music in a different context. The coolness of the Belcea Quartet aesthetic is fundamental to Chorzelski's playing. He is a remarkable technician and a courteous listener, much to the benefit of Apekisheva's feverish figures in Schumann's Märchenbilder, less so in the great smooch of Brahms's E-flat Sonata, where I could have done with more bite. The recital was impeccably prepared, every gasp of rubato, every breath, every colour, every silence.
I was unsure how to read Nicola LeFanu's Dream Hunter, directed by Carmen Jakobi and premiered by Lontano at Wilton's Music Hall under the supremely engaged and stylish musical direction of Odaline de la Martinez. John Fuller's first libretto is set in Corsica "a hundred or so years ago" and explores the legend of the mazzere, or seers. In it, the mazzera Catarina (Charmian Bedford) saves her sister Angela (Caryl Hughes) from a humiliating marriage by destroying Angela's boorish fiancé (Brian Smith Walters) in her dreams, thereby consigning her to spinsterhood and a life of tending their equally boorish father (Jeremy Huw Williams).
LeFanu has inherited her mother Elizabeth Maconchy's ear for language and sensitivity to the natural vocal compass, restricting the use of extreme tessitura to moments of extreme emotion and supporting the voices with a moon-bright palette of harp, strings and flute. There is no wastage in her writing, no fuss. Was there a feminist agenda? Catarina's motives may be selfish, but so odious are Dream Hunter's male characters that they made me feel quite itchy. To this day, women make similar bargains – my womb/your wallet, my ears/your anecdotes – but avenging mazzere are in scant supply.
'West End Girl' (020-7478 0160) to 3 Mar
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