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The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum: Lambert’s <em>The Oval Portrait</em> & Mozart’s <em>The Impresario</em>
10 Sep 2017

The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum

The courtly palace may have been opera’s first home but nowadays it gets out and about, popping up in tram-sheds, car-parks, night-clubs, on the beach, even under canal bridges. So, I wasn’t that surprised to find myself following The Opera Box down the shaft of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe for a double bill which brought together the gothic and the farcical.

The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum: Lambert’s The Oval Portrait & Mozart’s The Impresario

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Samuel Pantcheff

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

In fact, Brunel’s Grade II* listed Grand Entrance Hall has rung with the sounds of serenades before: as Brunel Museum director Robert Hulse explained during his interval talk, it was the venue for the world’s first underground concert party in 1827. Though its engineering was both remarkable and rock-solid, the Tunnel’s finances were more ropey: the money ran out before the ramps needed for horse-drawn freight had been built and when it finally opened in 1843 it was accessible only to pedestrians.

Ever the showman - and not deterred by the fact that he himself had almost drowned in the shaft when a collapse during construction resulted in a flood that killed six men - Brunel turned the Tunnel into a sort of underground pleasure-garden. Acrobats and singers entertained the millions of Londoners who paid their penny to enter the first ever road tunnel under a river - it became known as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ - and wander through the bazaars, fun fairs and food stalls.

cbrunelmuseum-archiveimage-19-570fb0801589c.jpg Photo credit: Archive image, Brunel Museum.

Then the steam trains came. The Tunnel was purchased in September 1865 by the East London Railway Company and that was the end of the subterranean show business. Until, in 2016, 190 years after construction began, the fitting of a free-standing, cantilevered staircase made the ‘sinking’ shaft accessible to the public once again and London gained a new underground performance space.

On this occasion, The Opera Box had teamed up with The Music Troupe to perform two short operas, as part of the Totally Thames Festival 2017. As music director Edward Lambert seated himself at the piano, I reflected that it must have taken ingenuity of which Brunel himself would have been proud to get the Bechstein down the ‘ship-in-a-bottle’ staircase. But, the new concert space certainly provided Lambert with a fittingly eerie performance space for his new opera, The Oval Portrait, the prose libretto of which is drawn from a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.

‘The Oval Portrait’ is one of Poe’s shortest stories, barely two pages long. A wounded man, the Narrator, seeks shelter in a ruined chateau where he ponders the strange paintings adorning the walls of his room. He is particularly captivated by the astonishing verisimilitude of one portrait, in an oval-shaped frame, depicting a beautiful young girl on the threshold of womanhood. He finds a book under his pillow which tells him that the young bride in the picture was the wife of the painter; she was life-loving, jealous of his art; he was obsessed with capturing her likeness, neglectful of his living wife. Dispirited, she weakened but ‘smiled on and still on’, ever eager to please her husband. When he finally finished the portrait, the painter exclaimed, “This is indeed Life itself!” He turned to his wife, only to find that she had died.

Lambert’s twenty-minute opera has less to say about the tale’s philosophical intimations on the complex relationship between art and life, and is a simpler, cautionary tale. Poe does not give us a ‘moral’ at the close; his story ends abruptly, with the book’s declaration that the painted “turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!” Lambert ignores Poe’s essential ambiguity, and gives us an ‘afterword’, the first time the voices of the Narrator and The Book - comprising a chorus of four singers - are overlain:

Narrator: And, as I read how the last brush stroke and the list tint had taken away the life of the lade of the oval portrait …
The Book: So let it be now that you who have read these words/ And have gazed on the portrait of the lady shall also die.

So, instead of a reflection on the dangers of aestheticism we have a more straightforward gothic tale. But, the five singers of The Opera Box told this tale effectively. Samuel Pantcheff’s Narrator was intensely, vividly alert. He swept through the lyrical vocal lines with strong characterisation and his diction was impressively clear given the extremely resonant acoustic. In the manner of a Greek chorus, attired in black, ‘The Book’ processed in, smeared their faces with white streaks and then took their places at four music stands to recite the book’s text.

Brunel Tunnel.jpg The Grand Entrance Hall, Brunel Museum.

The venue helpfully aided both blend and projection, so it’s difficult to comment on the ‘quality’ of the singing, but the intonation was secure and the delivery compellingly urgent. The Book’s polyphonic opening - rather like a Renaissance motet - was controlled and the entries clear. The homophonic repetitions emphasising the painter’s neglect of his young bride as she sat in the dark turret for many weeks while his gaze was fixed on his easel - he did not see that “the light in that lone turret/ Withered the health and spirits of his bride who pined visibly to all but him.” - became increasingly disturbing, and confirmed Lambert’s effective text-setting.

Lambert’s piano reduction (the work is scored for piano, clarinet, bass clarinet, viola and cello) was evocative, largely comprising extended episodes of contrasting ‘patterns’ - anything from neoclassical Alberti bass-type figuration to Nyman-esque repetitions. At times, the accompaniment seemed rather dense in texture, and the rapid, pounding chords resonated rather too loudly, competing with the rumbles of London Overground trains overhead and leading the singers to push their voices rather too forcefully. I don’t know how much time the company had to rehearsal in the performance space, but a little more consideration might have been given to the effect of the extraordinarily generous acoustic, for the overall sound-mass was occasionally overwhelming.

The same was true for the subsequent performance of Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), in which Lambert’s enthusiastic overture established a dynamic platform from which it was difficult for the singers to retreat, although later arias had greater lucidity. The work was commissioned by Emperor Joseph II to entertain the guests attending a private luncheon in the orangery of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, in 1786. A public opera competition was held which both Salieri and Mozart presented one-act operas which took an ironic swipe at the world of opera. Salieri’s opera buffa Prima la musica e poi le parole, which was full of jibes about Mozart’s frequent collaborator Da Ponte, triumphed over Mozart’s Singspiel (the composer called it a ‘comedy with music’).

A parody on the professional and personal vanity of singers and other theatre-folk, Der Schauspieldirektor (given here in a new translation by director Mark Burns, which teases out some topical tropes) presents a theatre director, Mr Frank (Pantcheff), who is having troubled raising funds to engage some new actors. Mr Phil Anthropist (Daniel Joy) promises to help but only if his lover, Madame Heartfelt (Jennifer Witton), can be the prima donna. Along come Miss Silverklang (Elizabeth Karani) and Mr Buff (James Schouten), to vaunt their vocal wares. Exasperated by their egos and eccentricities, Mr Frank is ready to give up but agrees that the audience should decide who should be hired.

Witton coped well with the diva’s challenging runs and hit the stratospheric heights with sparkle, but the acoustic magnified every rough edge on the way up: less really would have been more - the venue would have done all the work. Karani, her fitness-freak challenger, was her match in their vocal duels, displaying lots of vocal colour and evenness across the registers. Exuberantly attired in mis-matched pink, yellow and scarlet Daniel Joy was a self-serving, self-absorbed ‘philanthropist’ whose appealing tenor was complemented by dramatic nous. I’m not sure I’d describe James Schouten as a buffo bass, but his Mr Buff had plenty of puff and bluff. Pantcheff provided strong focus and presence for the rest of the cast, and his extended stretches of dialogue were fluent and engaging.

There were plentiful gags about singers’ status, salaries and self-love, as well as the relevance of opera in the modern world. But, while Burns can turn out a neat triple-rhyme and tap fruitfully into a contemporary lexicon, his direction made less of an impact. Arias tended to be delivered from the centre of the stage-space, with the rest of the cast manically mincing, arm-waving and engaging in histrionics behind, with little meaningful interaction between them. There was potential here for some really sharp satire and tightly focused drama but, in the event, we had horse-play and lightweight cattiness.

Moreover, the company need to give some thought to what might be termed professional procedures. After Mr Hulse’s interesting but extended mid-way presentation, I assumed that we were ready to get on with the show, especially as we were invited at its conclusion to applaud and welcome back The Opera Box. In the event, another 25 minutes passed before things got underway, during which time a stage-hand had wandered about with some chairs and seemed to be preparing a new set, but got distracted by some friends in the audience. It’s all very well to cultivate a ‘friends and family’ ambience but, given that the costume changes must have taken just a few minutes, when barely 60 minutes of music extends to an event lasting nearly two hours you are in danger of stretching the audience’s patience.

That said, the talented young cast sang and hammed valiantly. The Opera Box put on a good show which was welcomed by an appreciative audience.

Claire Seymour

Edward Lambert - The Oval Portrait: Narrator - Samuel Pantcheff, The Book - Jennifer Witton, Elizabeth Karani, Daniel Joy, James Schouten
Mozart - The Impresario: Madame Heartfelt - Jennifer Witton, Miss Silverklang - Elizabeth Karani, Mr Phil Anthropist - Daniel Joy, Mr Frank - Samuel Pantcheff, Mr Buff - James Schouten

Director - Mark Burns, Music Director/Pianist - Edward Lambert, Lighting Designer - Fridthjofur Thorsteinesson, Assistant Director - Morgan Richards

Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe, London; Thursday 7th September 2017

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