Triple Bill: The Telephone, or L'Amour à Trois / A Hand of Bridge / The Impresario

Gian Carlo Menotti / Samuel Barber with libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti / Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with a new English libretto by Peter Wolf
Little Operations
Rosemary Branch Theatre

Triple Bill publicity photo

One upon a time I used to pay 30/- (£1.50) for a good Stalls Circle seat at Covent Garden. Today that would cost me more than a hundred times as much and proportionally my income would have to be over £1200 a week. Of course I know that there are cheaper seats and if you can book early enough you can stand, but for those who like to be able to see the whole stage and don't want to be miles away, visits to Covent Garden or even ENO are costly, so it is great that we now have a number of small scale opera companies putting on intimate opera at prices that don't burn a hole in the pocket: £14/£12 concessions in this case..

This triple bill from Little Operations kicks of a mini-season of three opera companies at the Rosie, one of, and perhaps the first, fringe theatre to regularly present opera and, of course, only a few bus stops away the King's Head now also dubs itself London's Little Opera House.

Little Operations is a new opera producing collective; they presented their first production in Redbridge last May and they have put together a bill of three chamber pieces offering very different moods, performed here scored for piano not the original instrumentation.

Though not exactly an opera innocent (I worked for several seasons with Benjamin Britten's English Opera Group and one year even appeared with an Italian opera company at London's Palace Theatre), perhaps I should make it clear I'm not a music critic or a canary fancier. I am reacting to it as a piece of theatre.

The Telephone is an amusing 20-minute duologue (well, really a monologue with attempted interruptions) that presents a man with a train to catch trying to get his telephone addicted girl friend to listen to him for just a moment. Director Isabella Hatton has set it in a room that looks wrecked after a party, balloons, bottles, magazines, bits of clothing scattered everywhere. It must have been a wild one, but that doesn't seem to be what this woman is gossiping about, though I can't be sure: the high range of her role and the opera house volume she gives it make text often difficult to follow. I think Menotti's intention was to make this sound naturalistic, though, at least as performed here, the music often places emphasis on the wrong word in a sentence, which doesn't help; nor does the fact that the pianist seems determined to drown out the singers.

Musical director Michael Young needs to rethink the balance and give more consideration to small room acoustics; indeed those at later performances could perhaps find this sorted. I've heard other opera at the Rosie without this problem.

You may miss any wit there may be in the libretto but you get the gist and the music becomes more effective as her conversation turns into a babble and Caitlin Dowain take off in a plethora of notes, but the score never gives her time to hear the other end of the conversation she replies to. Because there is no chance to make any real discoveries about these people it becomes an extended single joke until it is resolved when Owain Browne's gently understated suitor is forced to ring up from the station to make his marriage proposal.

I was baffled at one point when the woman says she is out of wine, though there appeared to be some half empty bottles around and anyway her boyfriend had just given her a bottle. Was this the director being careless in making his unnamed present wine or a subtle touch to emphasis her scattiness - and how did what look like neckties get twisted around the furniture? Maybe there was a whole level I missed!

A Hand of Bridge is literally that, one hand in a bridge game, during which each of the four players has their own aria of thoughts that have little to do with the game. Barber is much more successful in setting words so that they still feel like natural speech.

For this little gem the audience goes downstairs to the bar where the players are seated at a table, an upright piano tucked in near them. It is still sometimes too loud and the musical director far too distracting. (Is a conductor really necessary when the singers are so intimate?) I lost much of the text of Letitia Perry and Caitlin Downie's arias - I think one of them was about a hat she wanted to buy - but they sounded good nonetheless. Joseph Ford Thompson's character sang gently of his mistress and wondered whether his wife was faithful and Ed Ballard (if I have guessed aright from the programme which does not identify who was who) wondered if life might be very different if he was as rich as his boss.

The Impresario, written by Mozart for a competition with Salieri pitching Italian against German operatic style, is about a theatre director and his backer auditioning actors and singers. It has a brief overture, a couple of arias for competing sopranos (one of them the backer's mistress) and a trio introducing a tenor (here given to the money man). It is rarely given in its original form and this version by Peter Wolf presents a modern British agent and his potential clients. There are references to some theatre personalities but I am not sufficiently intimate with the music world to identify any intentional caricature in this failing producer and his very non-U sidekick, who gets a very full-throttle performance from Patrick Lenney.

This company offers a mission statement that it wants to 'produce opera with a strong dramatic focus, allowing both performers and audience to connect to the drama conveyed in the music', so I found this a strange choice since it is mainly text with little music, of which only the final numbers add any extra drama. This not very funny playlet is performed with frantic energy but makes a rather tedious frame for Mozart's music.

"Triple Bill" runs at the Rosemary Branch Theatre until 24th September 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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