My opera year started in Covent Garden's Lindbury Studio with something of a train wreck in the form of The Beggar's Opera. It is fitting, therefore, that it has ended there with an absolute tour de force.
How to describe it? From the moment you come to your seat there is a sense of wonder. The set glistens and gleams, the rotating floor sections are intricately marked out as calendars. Planets, dresses and roman columns all dangle from the ceiling.
This is a fairytale, and one clearly written and crafted by lovers of the genre. Indeed, The King, superbly sung by Jo Servi, and gloriously kitted out in his boxer's garb, has a superb number early on warning his daughters of various stereotypical hazards they should be on the lookout for while he is away: don't accept food from strangers who come to the door, elderly stooping men with long beards are on the make, and there's a nice bit about spindles and straw.
Needless to say, the King then hands over the to the room they mustn't enter and the inevitable ensues, leading to the youngest, Princess Flora, being married off to a pig (well, pig by day, man by night, cursed in the finest fairytale tradition). But things don't go entirely to plan and after a brief worry towards the end of the first act that there wouldn't be enough material to sustain two hours, such doubts were quickly dispelled and Flora must trek to the ends of the earth, and beyond, wearing down her iron shoes, in search of a happy ending while we will her on.
Sondheim is a strong influence, most keenly felt in the King's number and the duet between The North Wind and Mrs North Wind. And yet it never feels the like it's trying to ape that, there isn't the same fiendish cleverness to the rhymes but rather something more accessible instead. But don't think this means Alasdair Middleton's libretto isn't strong, far from it. He provides a poignant tale with plenty of laughs and deftly balances the trick of adding some lines for the grown-ups. Perhaps the only flaw is why on earth the King leaves the key behind in the first place. But one cannot really call that a flaw, since if he hadn't we'd have been robbed of a fabulous story.
The same is true musically. Bernstein often springs to mind as an influence, and a number of moments seeming to recall his Mass. Similarly there is Janacek too. Indeed, there is a repeated call on the trombone that feels like the opening fanfare to the glorious Sinfonietta and makes you wish for the next few notes. Jonathan Dove's score is particularly impressive for the small forces he uses to realise it: just trombone, bass, percussion, harp, cello and accordion. The richness and variety he finds with this unexpected sextet is wonderful, so too at times how much bigger an ensemble it feels than it can possibly be. Music director Tim Murray must take much credit for keeping a tight grip on things.
Too often, though, one leaves the opera offsetting fine musical performances against a silly staging. Not so here: the production design is simply glorious; never fussy or getting in the way, inventive and always supporting the story. Indeed, the basic set changes little, yet takes you to the end of the world, the moon, the sun and the milky way almost effortlessly with only minor alterations. Much of this is helped by excellent lighting design. This has been well coordinated with other aspects, an outstanding example being the magic string which has been appropriately dyed so that it glows red under UV lights. There is Moon, especially beautiful atop a lighthouse surrounded in dry ice, so too the five mirror balls spinning in different directions to form a galaxy of stars. And that's without mentioning the golf cart, or the way the wind blows Flora with her umbrella, the bed that doubles as a poison cabinet or the three hedges trimmed into the shapes of pigs' heads, the portrayal of the talking book of fate and the wonderfully chavy rival to Flora.
The great touches don't stop there, movement and staging is well considered too. There is the Pig's powerful entry, hammering at the doors from offstage, then singing his entry and coming in through the auditorium. There is Sun whirling round on the floor, lamp strapped to his head.
All credit then to the production team of director John Fulljames, designer Dick Bird, lighting designer Bruno Poet and movement director Philippe Giraudeau. This is particularly heartening as Fulljames is doing The Excursions of Mr Broucek with Scottish Opera in the new year (the production is coming from Opera North where it's already aired). If he brings the same sense of wonder, we are in for a real treat.
Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the size of cast with which everything is accomplished: just eight superb singers double up, again and again, seamlessly changing from one role to another. Indeed, the flawlessly executed and extremely rapid costume changes (Pig to man and Flora's iron shoes particularly) are extremely impressive. Normally these are offstage, but look out for the arrival of the King of the East, you won't miss it, for a clue to how this is done. And these aren't just singers but real and true singing actors. Witness how Jo Servi effortlessly morphs into The North Wind, complete with norther accent (Beverly Klein providing a perfect match in his wife), or the fabulous facial expressions of Michelle Cornelius as Dot, the middle princess, and Day. There is Simon Wilding's powerful portrayal of the Pig and Tom Solomon's moving Moon. This is a cast devoid of any weak links. Diction, often a problem was not a issue and one never felt a need for surtitles (and just as well as they weren't there and would only have got in the way).
Not having encountered them before, I'm not sure how much this is the style of The Opera Group, who are responsible for this wonder, but to say the least I'm more than keen to make closer acquaintance with their work.
It was wonderful to see so many young faces in the audience at Covent Garden. Yes, you get the odd bit of chatter, though to be quite honest all the children were better behaved than some adults I've come across and in a show like this it doesn't matter.
If you find yourself looking at the billing and thinking that this is just for children, for the love of God fight that thought and buy a ticket if there are still any left, and from the handful of empty seats it seems possible there may be.
In short, we at Where's Runnicles have one overriding recommendation for the management of Covent Garden to take away from this: get this team to do something upstairs post haste.
Given I started this review with a reference to that dire Beggar's Opera, and that review ended with a negative award, it seems only fair to create a positive one here. So, without further ado, I present:
The Enchanted Pig Award for a Production Team who Inventively Transport the Audience to Another World and Should Never Be Out of Work Again.
And, because for this one just isn't enough:
The Opera Group Award for an Ensemble who Quickly and Effortlessly Glide Through Countless Costume Changes, Portraying Myriad Parts to Perfection.
It was, in short, an absolute triumph. The loud cheers that greeted the performers and creators at the end show that we were not alone in our appreciation.