Opera: Rake it in with style ...into the fires of Hell

Don Giovanni / Rake's Progress British Youth Opera
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The Independent Online
It's been a difficult summer for British Youth Opera (BYO). Its founder Denis Coe fell ill, funds failed to materialise, rehearsals were cut, performances cancelled: an everyday story of small-scale opera. The show must go on, though. Any number of lavish stagings demonstrate that big budgets guarantee nothing. BYO's two new shows have energy and ingenuity that might have been dissipated had more cash been available.

Nigel Warrington's staging of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress perhaps tries too hard to make something from next to nothing. Jess Curtis's set consists of little more than a dozen or so kitchen chairs, arranged and rearranged so insistently that you wish the singers would sit and be still. Nevertheless they provide an effective way of creating stage spaces, and there is a real coup when chairs and chorus-members become the internal workings of Nick Shadow's machine for converting stones to bread.

Stravinsky's opera is a bold project for young singers (and instrumentalists) barely out of college. Its idiom hovers tantalisingly between the 18th and 20th centuries, Auden and Kallman's libretto is so literate that you really want to hear every word, and you need to believe, at least for a moment, that Shadow might actually be Old Nick himself. In sober suit and sensible shoes, Richard Morrison looks rather too responsible, but he has an insinuating manner that makes it credible that he might persuade Peter Auty's Tom Rakewell out of 18th-century dress into the corrupting garb of our own time.

Auty proves an interesting performer. His tenor has weight at bottom and top, and he gives good shape to the lines, though, like most of the cast, he doesn't always get Stravinsky's spikiness. Perhaps because the staging spends so long playing musical chairs, the principals have little else to do but gesture operatically, though Auty conveys something genuine with his body as well as his voice. Mari-Kjersti Tennfjord's Anne sings sweetly even if, like the character perhaps, she flutters just a tad, while Cari Searle's Baba the Turk produces a real frisson of delicious horror.

Mozart's Don Giovanni makes an obvious companion piece. Here, though, Hell has to be more real, even if it's a Hell of Giovanni's making. Robert Chevara's production, designed by Es Devlin, has more chairs, arranged around a central circle (circus or bull-ring, as you will), on which principals and chorus sit, facing away from the action, awaiting their cue. It's a credit to the performances within the ring that those at its perimeter are no distraction.

Costumes are more or less smart modern, so there isn't much distinction between the classes, although James Lawrence's Giovanni has an aristocratic disdain that sets him apart. The work is sung in Amanda and Anthony Holden's precise translation, most of which gets across. Physical gestures are again conventional, and again the singers manage to find something personal in them. Benjamin Bland's Leporello is more uppity than some, Giovanni's friend as well as his whipping boy; while Wynne Evans, another promising tenor, makes Ottavio much more than a wimpish fop. Among the women, Felicity Hammond's Elvira stands out, but it's Lawrence's self-absorbed Giovanni that dominates, working himself into a demented frenzy in the Champagne aria, yet capable of beguiling warmth in his serenade beneath some imagined beauty's window.

In both operas, the orchestra plays creditably, although detail is not always as clear as it might be. BYO performs a valuable service for singers and players, but it never forgets that it also has to work for an audience. Neither staging is faultless, but both are real shows that confront the works in question, and in so doing force us to confront them as well.

`Rake's Progress': 5pm today, Spitalfields Market Opera, Lamb St, London E1 (0171-247 2558)