This is composer Elizabeth Maconchy's centenary year, but despite her spiky excellence, its observance has been discreet. So it's nice to find one of Britain's newest and brightest chamber opera groups reviving a surreal double-bill in the very theatre where these works were premiered half-a-century ago. And while The Sofa has been intermittently done by amateurs, her spooky The Departure hasn't been performed since its premiere.
To test the water I drop in on an early rehearsal in a studio in Pimlico, where a bunch of singers are piling on top of each other in a scene of carefully choreographed mayhem. This is the chorus of Independent Opera, set up two years ago as a showcase for young singers, and despite the confusion, displaying some fine voices. "I was determined that even our chorus would be of a really high standard, rather than just having a couple of stellar people at the top supported by run-of-the-mill folk at the bottom," says their young director Alessandro Talevi. "That is not the aesthetic of this company – we're a virtuoso ensemble."
The plot of The Sofa – which the composer herself described as "light-hearted, light-headed, and entirely improbable" – centres on a young rake who is holding a meltdown party at his house. His witch-grandmother punishes him by turning him into a sofa: he will only be allowed to become a man again when he consents to endure a couple making love on top of him – and given that the woman being seduced is his girlfriend, he's going to freak out.
Maconchy wanted this piece to be set in the 1860s, with girls in ball-gowns, but Talevi has chosen to set it in Noughties London. "It takes place in a Shoreditch flat in a reclaimed warehouse overlooking the City, and the characters are fashionistas – druggy, going clubbing in outlandish costumes, typical Hoxton socialites."
He had to find a look which would work for The Departure too, but he binds me to silence as to the extraordinary twist on which its plot is based. Will these shows have an afterlife? Not immediately, but the omens are good.
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