Opera Shots: Home, Sevestapol

Graham Fitkin & Jasmin Vardimon, Neil Hannon
ROH2
Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Opera Shots, Royal Opera House

Opera shots is a pick and mix evening, a little of everything and if you put it all in your mouth together you can get explosive combinations. In its third year Opera Shots continues to flourish with two exciting new compositions.

Opera Shots brings composers unassociated with opera to provide 'new ideas, different perspectives and provocative themes’ (ROH2). A tall order some might say, yet these exciting collaborations have created just that, incredible new chamber operas that leave you gasping for more. Composer Neil Hannon writes in his introduction to Sevastopol, "my first (and quite probably last) attempt at opera"; I for one am crossing my fingers that he comes back for more.

On the bill tonight is Home, a collaboration between composer Graham Fitkin and esteemed choreographer and director Jasmin Vardimon. The pair have co-written the libretto, which aims to look at the idea of home and the fragility of the notion. Starting off with a cosily intertwined couple in a white wall canvas flat, the pair slowly become more aware of the hostile outside world. They try to hold on tight to their bubble, but to no avail as trumpeters force themselves through doorways and singers slash holes in the walls.

Black, cartoonesque projections (Jesse Collett) dress the flat, becoming increasingly interactive. Swirling leaves cover the walls as they blow in through the door, and as terror overcomes the couple the white space is inverted so it becomes a claustrophic black box. The two singers (Melanie Pappenheim and Victoria Couper) dressed entirely in white, become part of the blank canvas of the flat.

The first half of this could be a dance piece. The libretto, similar to Fitkin's minimalist score, is repetitive with phrases overlapping, more abstract background music than plot. Vardimon transforms the everyday fumbles between a couple into an intricate weaving of limbs and capitalises on that annoying new couple habit: the sense of the others presence and a desperate attempt to stay in contact at all times.

Watching this production raised the question, what is opera? The singing in this work is not in the traditional operatic style, and the singers are even miked to compensate for their location on stage and the orchestral forces they are projecting above. But Fitkin's music is sinewy and mesmerizing, and the subtle shifts in lyrics echo the growing fear onstage. Opera is known as a total art form and Home embodies this idea. All disciplines of the arts are present and are active participants in the action onstage. Dancers, singers, band members form part of the drama alongside clever set design. This is Vardimon’s first creation with live music onstage and she makes use of the instrumentalists to create a visual feast above a pulsating score.

Neil Hannon’s Sevastopol is entirely different. Famous as a singer in his own right and frontman of the Divine Comedy, this composition uses Tolstoy’s travels to the front line of the Crimean war. Hannon picks extracts from Tolstoy’s own writing and tracks a young Leo Tolstoy on his journey through Sevastopol. More in the vein of Les Miserable than our standard contemporary operatic fare, Hannon’s writing is at times beautifully lyrical, and Tolstoy’s (Richard Burkhead) aria ‘we go on’ when approaching the fourth bastion is firmly lodged in my memories.

Hannon creates caricatures of the different people Tolstoy encounters on his travels. The other four singers are transformed into a huge variety of individuals. Burkhead’s voice is rich, and he captures the expressions of someone full of wonder at a strange and horrifying new world. Emma Baileys mud- and blood-caked set evokes the long, drawn out battles that must have been carried out, and the rectangle shapes littered around the stage a coffin-shaped reminder of death.

At times poignant and moving, this production is extremely accessible for a non opera lover combining Hannon’s pop background with exquisite music making from the cast and ensemble. However Hannon doesn’t quite push far enough into the desperation and the climactic final scene falls a little short of the previous number.

As very different compositions, the only thing these two operas have in common is their brevity and beautiful, innovative set ideas created by Emma Bailey (a winner of the Linbury Prize for Stage Design 2011). The 2012 Opera Shots experience is an exciting exploration into where opera can go; these music theatre pieces both touch on new sound worlds for the opera genre.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis