Opera Review: Just along for the Ride

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I Can't Stand Wagner; The Music Shop

Bloomsbury Theatre, London

Wagnerian earnestness hangs heavy over contemporary opera, and every composer wants to write Tristan und Isolde II. Put bluntly, you don't go to new opera for laughs, so when Seymour Barab comes along with a piece called I Can't Stand Wagner, one pays attention. It's staged by Sarah Jennings, whose company Jigsaw Music Theatre announces its speciality as "20th-century comic and satirical music theatre and opera": all, of course, in the cause of accessibility.

That word again. With those on one side clamouring for accessibility, and composers on the other desperately aping Wagner, opera's life is ebbing away. But credit to Jigsaw for putting comedy centre stage. Barab's opera makes a double-bill with Richard Wargo's The Music Shop, each lasting 40 minutes: bonus points for brevity. Barab originally wrote I Can't Stand Wagner, in 1985, with piano accompaniment. For this production, he provided a chamber orchestration, but I'm not sure it wouldn't have more drama, and perhaps more music, with just piano.

Its idiom is pleading tunefulness, off-Broadway style, with numbers linked by recitative only a breath away from plain speech. Still, the words come across and we always know what's going on: a conductor's wife, suspecting her husband of philandering, vengefully flirts with his agent ("20 per cent of everything he makes is everything I make"). Hubby returns unexpectedly, but far from worrying about the agent kissing his wife, he's distracted. Suddenly, on the hour, three women appear for a rendition of the Valkyries' chorus: the conductor can't stand Wagner, you see, and having offended the Gods with his Zeus Symphony, is to be tortured forever by this travelling opera troupe.

Amusing enough, and the plot allows Barab to toss around musical allusions, as if he daren't lose his audience. But, in a staging that's more about poses than movement, we need something more assertive. The band, conducted by Bruce O'Neill, vamps admirably, but, as somebody once said of another opera, it feels as if there are rather too many notes. If the Valkyries were the only ones to sing, the joke might actually be funnier. As it is, it's no more than a warm-up for Wargo's The Music Shop, in which a customer turns the shop, its owner and shop-assistant upside down in search of a particular piece of music. Once again, the story licenses plenty of quotations in a musical fabric that is brightly attractive, if never quite individual.

Here, though, the quotations produce genuine comedy in a sequence of operatic samples that shunts the singers from idiom to idiom: Bizet, Rossini, Mozart tumble forth as everyone searches for exactly what the customer requires. If may not be new music, but it is funny, and generates real pep in the performers (Fiona Firth-Spiller, Henry Moss, Giles Davies), all of whom also appear in Barab's piece.

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