A new telling of an old tale

Having a ball: Ramiro (Ricky Ramiro: Robert Grisbrook) and Dandini (Danny D: Rory Carver) keep some  . . . slightly unseemly company Pictures: Peter Marsh ashmorevisuals.co.uk


Opera Warwick

University of Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry


STUDENT opera in the UK has entered a different league over the past quarter century.

The Music Colleges, spearheaded by the Royal Northern in Manchester and followed by London's Guildhall, and more recently Royal College and Academy, have adopted production values that put them, periodically, in the league of the big players.

Birmingham's own Conservatoire has enjoyed some successes, along with colleges in Glasgow and Cardiff.

Opera at university is less common. Cambridge did a lot, and excelled, when conductor (Sir) Mark Elder and producer David Pountney were cutting their teeth. Bristol has mounted worthy productions, so has Newcastle; and I dare say a good few others. Oxford had a famous opera club in the 1950s and 60s, mounting rarely heard classical and pre-classical opera. But it is not de rigueur at university even to have an opera club.

So three cheers for the Opera Warwick, whose first ventures in the genre date back some way, but who over the past few seasons (including a Hansel and Gretel last year) have sought to up their standards to something approaching the above.

Well, they have done better than that. Their Cinderella (not unlike the pantomime, but in Rossini's take on it to a fairly dotty libretto by Jacopo Ferretti based on the same Fairy-Tale on which Massenet based his Cendrillon) ranks alongside productions by the RNCM and London music colleges in almost every respect.

The brilliant, garish, OTT production, by Arthur Jones, undertaking his first stagework as director, and – I would guess – a magically gifted Second Year student - is exactly what this seasonally stupid opera needs.

The new translation, by Jones and Warwick's seasoned and multitalented David Levesley (founded on an earlier version by John Aldis), hits the solar plexus of student humour: no wonder the rows of the pretty capacious auditorium were packed 18s to 20-somethings. This was their show. Perhaps Fairy Tales – and hapless, forlorn, moping Angsts - are the very stuff of love-struck students: the time when bolshy post-teenagers begin to feel their way back to childhood.

Why so clever, and why so good? The substantial student orchestra (around 35: 20 strings, double brass and woodwind, plus the big bass drum, inevitable for Italian oompah) took three or four minutes to crank up but then played like angels (solos galore, but horn and above all, clarinet took the laurels) and then it really came good.

Sorority house: Hannah Price and Katherine Thorogood as the two nauseous (though, let's be honest, not really ugly) Sisters

 Benjamin Hamilton's pacings never – to my ear – let the pacing flag, and thus did a huge favour to those onstage. This piece has to be vocally slick, or it is nothing. And given the various outrageousnesses and blissful liberties of the book and staging (yes, it's like a Musical too) it relied on pace and pzazz and panache all the more.

It got them. I couldn't possibly insult out readership by reiterating the story, so instead let's say that it was set in the here and now. The Prince (‘Ricky Ramiro') doesn't sport a crown or a palace (other than of the Ibiza/Benidorn kind) but perambulates (percurrates?) in a Porsche with his spivvy factotum Danny D. Yes, The Godfather hovers somewhere, comically, beneath this production, though knifings and loo-hidden bombs and gas station assassinations we're spared. Save those for A Masked Ball.

The girls – there are cartloads of them, just four chorus chaps – are of the type you'd meet on Friday nights flocking to Birmingham or Nottingham (or Leamington Spa?) nightclubs, or even worse, encounter emerging at 3 a.m. Did they get in the way? Far from it. With Cinders' kindly godfather revamped as hip, much-photographed film/matinee idol Ali D (Andrew Archibald; Rossini's original was Alidoro), they had something to grab, or grope after. Nothing naff in all this. A Cenerentola just full of ideas, fizzing energy and incredibly funny (no pictures can do justice to its sheer explosive impact).

A highlight of the staging was not so much the pissoir at which Danny and Donny loiter (no hanky-panky, just the suggestion of it), or the unnerving sudden eruptions from stage into auditorium, or even the magnificently manhandled stage paraphernalia (all moved smoothly, well done the technical department), but the telly screen above front stage left, which offers a bizarre – and hilarious - glossary (or ‘glossy-ary') of phrases the hapless characters brazenly utter.

As most of the terms glossed are from the glitzier, hipper end of this revamped libretto – terms, nicknames, personalities that would appeal to any students – to see them sent up in such consistently crafted, pithy piss-takes was immense fun.

Love at first mop: Ramiro (Robert Grisbrook) realises he is falling for Cinderella (Charlotte Howes)

It played to the students' naivety – as these were their kind of utterances, their sort of world; but also to their sophistication, in that the gloss caught and reflected their real, deep down dismissive, take on things. A parody, in the best taste.

And of course it all added to the impact. Ramiro, controlled, almost a clockwork wound up, by Dandini (or Danny D) – the servant and master thing reverts past Shakespeare and Commedia dell'Arte to both Plautus and Aristophanes - is pretty much a wet.

Why we care about this limp Guys and Dolls or West Side Story echoing romance is a mystery. Except that the romance itself is parodied mercilessly: audience message boards abound, downloads litter the TV screen whose first role was, thanks to electronic engineer, social networking guru and ‘Twitter-feed designer' Tom Gillepsy, abetted by or abetting Joseph Henshaw, to encourage out-in-front, obsessive audience tweeting (‘Gosh – wow - you're really great, love, Sharon', ‘I think Donny's fab, guys', ‘Joe, thanks, drink? See you at the end'. It's a let your hair down show.

The principals, with some caveats, pulled it of remarkably well. I'm not sure Archibald's Ali D role – or rather, the presentation of it - was adequately thought through. One sensed a sugardaddy figure, and he did provide a generous, benign, schemingly manipulative contrast – he was definitely ‘other'. But the key function of this princely tutor figure, Alidoro, is that (like Mozart's Don Alfonso) he brings some sanity to the mayhem. This figure was a little too elusive: he didn't always communicate a clear message. Did it matter? A bit.

The ugly sisters – at least here – are often the lynchpin of the show. Only recently I saw two pantomime ugly sisters – not so much pantomime dames as merely cross-dressed miladdos, who, ill-directed, contrived to be singularly unfunny.

This Warwick pair were a hoot, from the first display of Daniella (Hannah Price)'s outrageous Carry On film boobs to the final near-shag Gabriella (Katherine Thorogood) engages in with Danny as all are miraculously reconciled. These bitchy cows harrumphed and pouted (Gabriella just a little too much the same way), stamped and teased and bullied and punched with such undying verve and finesse, I can only conclude that's what all Warwick students are like.

But the main thing was, they could sing: in duet they were a joy; alone, each excelled at one point or another, and Price (who has the upper line) was a treat throughout. Both well-rounded, promising voices one could easily listen to again.

Or not alone. The Act I initial quartet – and subsequent ensembles - à5, à7 - were highlights of the show, Hamilton somehow keeping everyone where he wanted them, which means in the right place, rhythm-wise, balance-wise, the lot. Subtle rallentandi or rubati or accelerandi all worked, everywhere, but most impressively in the ensembles. This was a high standard indeed.

What of the other chaps? Both have nice voices, to my ears (maybe not everyone's) somewhat underdeveloped, lacking proper support and decent diaphragm breathing enough to give them the vocal confidence. Each, periodically, felt a little strained – though one should never forget, this is fiendishly difficult stuff to sing.

Rory Carver, a Warwick Choral Scholar and a huge success visually as Danny, if falling a bit into the formulaic (though it is pantomime, after all), had fewer problems. The tone, or the beginnings of it, is really pleasing, and the way he set out to sing had many things to commend it. But not, quite, the way it all ended up.

A torch in a confusing world: the resplendent Charlotte Howes as Cinderella

Some coloratura worked (a joy when it did); some, less so. But Carver is a gifted all-rounder. Much of the plot's slick comedy was owed to him; he is definitely a find. A natural Papageno, and already Hansel and Gretel's cuckoo (I don't remember any cuckoo?!), he has five years of university behind him, and a run of singing lessons: so far, so good. Time, perhaps, to take off.

Robert Grisbrook is, his biog states (the witty programme photos, a sort of Facebook prank, squared splendidly with the atmosphere of the whole; indeed only the limp penultimate chorus scene and uncreative curtain calls let this production down), ‘a Second Year English student, who loves to moonlight as a singer.' In a way it felt a bit like that. He sings with Birmingham-based choir Ex Cathedra – no small recommendation – and started out as a member of Trinity Boys Choir – I assume in Croydon, than whom, with their operatic forays and handsome tradition, there are few better in the land.

With that pedigree, one expects a lot. Grisbrook was (appropriately, given a Harry Potterish name) the Witch in Warwick's Hansel and Gretel; yet a role I find it as hard to imagine his tame, gentle persona carrying off as that of a meekly spivvish likely lad of a footballing star, slavered over by gut-churning Essex girls (ugly sisters included) who spring forth at every opportunity.

There's a lovely voice in there, sometimes but not always in evidence here. Establishing no character – this Ramiro was even more a wraith than usual (‘what a plonker') – he rather lost conviction as a singer too. Rossini's top notes, bravely essayed, were – though should one really complain? - sometimes there, sometimes not quite. One wondered about some of his vowels, dipthongs especially. He (and indeed Danny) can pull off coloratura, but not the way the girls do; both lads at times sounded more like sixth form than college voices. In duet with Cinders (there was a touch of Papageno-Papagena: Grisbrook displays rhythmic flair) this Ramiro certainly plucks at the heart strings. He wins our sympathy, and our admiration. But not yet my vote.

Dad, Don Magnifico of (aptly) Montefiascone, now recast as ‘Donny M', is played magnificently as ‘a bombastic blunderer' (as the singer himself puts it) by Thomas Stevenson.

Again the singing voice, though not the delivery, leaves something to be desired, though his fleeting coloratura touches, despite a marginal thinness in the tone, were possibly best of the chaps' efforts. Yet anyone who can play Gloucester in King Lear (here, appropriately, he seemed more like the Fool) deserves out attention. His sense of slapstick, reined in or not so reined in, would make him a treat for several opera companies. It all seemed a bit frenetic at first. But as he remained so consistent, while gradually varying the act, Stevenson emerged as part of the vital cement of this production. One wanted to swat him; but that was a measure of his success.

Consistency, indeed, is what made this Opera Warwick staging so outstanding. To generate a flow of ideas with no firmly held to underlying idea is the bane of opera, as in theatre, directing (avoid Germany, where even the idea is often a disaster). Jones, with his team – wonderfully in-yer-face set design by Lizzy Leech, costumes bought or bought in (both) by Helen Kalpus and Nikki Chan, and superbly timed lighting and sound effects from Olly Levett and Rob Morton – everything was bang on cue, and might witty it all was – delivered something that never faltered in its drive, vision (yes) and, believe it or not, authenticity. It hung together.

Lifted from obscurity. Even the incorrigibles acquiesce in their sister's fairy-tale transformation 

This is a review, you might feel, without a heart. Where is Cinders? The answer is, of course, that Charlotte Howes' Cinderella was the best thing in this show by miles. She is on the way to the Royal College of Music, and no surprise there. It was bespoke in every note she sang, Coloratura – at least this amount - makes vast, hefty demands on a mezzo, or low soprano. But when done well, as here, or by the likes of a butch-sounding low Vesselina Kasarova, it can reveal a richness of timbre that sometimes eludes a high soprano.

Howes has it all, give or take a little more work on enriching her lowest range. The glorious sound lifted her head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, perhaps even including the other two girls, electric though they were. There is a maturity here remarkable for a 20 year old. At the Royal College she is going to find herself amongst like company. But I prophesy she will emerge one of the best, and I hope the Britten Theatre's casting directors are checking her out already. As soon as there, she should chase auditions. Hampstead Garden Opera, Bampton Classical Opera, Glyndebourne Festival chorus, the London Handel Festival – all could be interested.  

She's no wee lass – you'd think she had been scrubbing and ironing and baking cookies since the last war – but Howes does have a wonderful mix of pathos and assurance. Cinders, of course, is really in charge even when bullied, but she suffers. Howes has the buxom and battered resilience already of a Donna Elvira; not an Orlovsky, yet (Fledermaus); but sometime. In Britten terms, perhaps a Mrs. Grose, or Mrs. Sedley (Screw, Grimes). And a Donizettian tragic heroine – Mary Stuart, perhaps – might beckon.

It was a pleasure and an uplift every time Howes opened her mouth. One rapidly knew – no exaggeration - one was in for something on a different plane. Not faultless, but mostly so, and utterly ravishing. Amid the jokes about Nando's and rhyming Bacardi Breezers, she stood out as a beacon of sanity, of vocal beauty and purity and – here was maybe the one intriguing inconsistency – genuine noblesse.

Resplendent in loud sunglasses and cream or off-white appropriate length attire, Howes looked like dignified, beaming royalty: not Princess Margaret at Ascot, or Di or Cathedrine, but the European, Dutch or Scandinavian, royals. That's an asset that can be used by those same casting directors: as things stand, more of a Marchioness than an Octavian.

Cinderella's deliberate removal – rather than loss – of her stiletto footware, mischievously initiating the ludicrous search and climax herself, was a delicious sendup of the original, one of many (again, consistent) details where Jones's Second Year humour penetrated to the guts of the piece. How does one rescript, or reimagine, Rossini for the modern stage? Like this. If Jones is a theatre director (studying Theatre and Performance) he can rest assured: he is an opera director too. 23-01-13

Roderic Dunnett  

Cinderella - The Opera returns to Warwick Arts Centre for three more dates, 25-27 April  2013


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