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17 Dec 2018

Dickens in Deptford: Thea Musgrave's A Christmas Carol

Both Venus and the hearth-fire were blazing at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance during this staging of Thea Musgrave’s 1979 opera, A Christmas Carol, an adaptation by the composer of Charles Dickens’ novel of greed, love and redemption.

Thea Musgrave’s A Christmas Carol at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Closing scene of A Christmas Carol

 

The Conservatoire’s season focus, Venus Blazing , is a pledge that during this academic year, of the operatic, classical and jazz music performed, at least 50% will be by women composers. One can see why Thea Musgrave thought that A Christmas Carol had musico-dramatic potential. There are ready-made ‘set-pieces’ such as the Christmas parties and the Cratchits’ lament; the characters are larger-than life, ‘operatic’, though they are never caricatures - this is a very human story. Moreover, it’s one that speaks to and of our time as much as Dickens’ own. A growing gap between rich and poor, homelessness, poverty, food banks: plus ça change? In Dickens’ parable, Ebenezer Scrooge - a man of ‘grasping, scraping, clutching’ greed, suffers a dark night of reckoning which leads him to right his wrongs and make recompense: perhaps a few venture capitalists, chief executives and stock brokers might take note.

One can understand, too, why the opera lends itself to a student performance. Musgrave’s vocal lines are eminently sing-able, the inflections natural and persuasive. With role-doubling, the opera can be performed by a cast of just seven, but there are more than forty characters offering opportunities for a large cast to get involved and supplying some handy supernumeraries for the scene-shifting.

Theo Perry Scrooge as a Young Man.jpgTheo Perry (Scrooge as a Young Man).

Not that there was much of the latter in Jennifer Hamilton’s production; Scrooge would surely have approved of the frugality of Ian Sommerville’s designs which made economical use of a few props - a ledger desk, a kitchen table, a curtained four-poster, a sumptuous armchair - to identify the narrative’s locales, as we moved from Scrooge’s workplace and home, to the Cratchits’ and Fezziwigs’ dwellings, and through London’s streets which thronged with charity collectors, factory girls, delivery boys, rag-and-bone men, city gents and urchins.

A back-wall of crumbling brick, Sommerville’s dramatic use of shadow and Jack Sommerville’s Doré-inspired projects evoked the bleakness of mid-Victorian London, the grim, fog-bound reality occasionally alleviated by a symbolic splash of colour, such as Tiny Tim’s trailing crimson scarf. The realism took a surreal turn with the ghostly visitations, as the eerie Spirits climbed a central staircase to trouble the sleeping Scrooge with memories of childhood suffering and visions of the cemetery where he would be lain to rest, unloved, un-mourned. After such darkness, the bold brightness of the concluding Christmas Party was as transformative as The Wizard of Oz’s technicolour.

Space considerations led conductor John Pryce-Jones to pare down Musgrave’s chamber orchestra scoring still further, and with just one string player per part the instrumental textures were rather wind-dominated, with strongly defined piano and harp contributions, though the strings were silkily sentimental when required. The large percussion section, positioned stage-right, issued a brutal battering during Scrooge’s breakdown at the end of the first Act and pounded a spine-chilling warning when the Spirit of Christmas Future appeared, accompanied by the wretched figures of Poverty and Want. In many ways it is Musgrave’s instrumental music that tells the story - bells ring out the strange retrograde of Scrooge’s surreal nightmare and a clarion peal colours the concluding Christmas feast - and the score was finely played. Pryce-Jones was alert to every detail and created strong narrative impetus.

Giuseppe Pellingra Ebenezer Scrooge .jpg Giuseppe Pellingra (Ebenezer Scrooge).

Giuseppe Pellingra’s Ebenezer Scrooge trod a convincing path from bullying to benevolence, acting courageously with voice, body and soul. He found a range of colours to convey the miser’s belligerence and spitefulness, his baritone glowing with a darkness that cowered Scrooge’s employees and repelled his relatives. Pellingra worked hard with the text - the diction of the cast was unanimously excellent - and was not afraid to spit and snarl. If occasionally the phrasing lacked refinement or there was a little coarseness of tone, then perhaps that’s how it should be as Scrooge defiantly scorns the visions of his past misdemeanours. But, his reflections on his errors require a greater lyricism if they are to persuade us of the conversion of Scrooge’s cold heart.

Sandeep Gurrapadi’s tenor bloomed with paternal warmth at the heart of the Cratchit family home as Bob hugged Rachel Maby’s colourful, good-humoured Mrs Cratchit and teased his children, who were vividly characterised and richly sung by Sofia Celenza (Belinda), Megan Linnell (Martha), Blaize O’Callaghan (Harriet) and Oliver Kotla (Peter). Gurrapadi’s deeply expressive response to the death of Tiny Tim (William Beckingham-Hughes) was equalled by the eloquence of the ensemble lament.

Sandeep Gurrapadi Bob Cratchit.jpgSandeep Gurrapadi (Bob Cratchit).

There was much strong characterisation. As Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, Theo Perry sang with a lovely freshness and clarity, and acted convincingly as a younger Scrooge. Belle’s extended scene, in which her neglect and rejection by Scrooge are re-enacted, was sung with compelling intensity by Arianna Rebecca Firth, accompanied by some passionate string playing. In ash-flecked white tails and top hat, Lars Fischer cut a Mephistophelian figure as Marley’s Ghost, issuing stentorian spoken warnings. Scrooge’s sister, Fan, was neatly sung by Valva Datenyté.

The harrowing hauntings by the Spirits of Christmas Past (Eleanor Strutt, a Grim Reaper who ripped a post from Scrooge’s bed to use as a staff of admonishment), Present (Isabella Morgan, who emerged clad in emerald foliage, from the forest of Scrooge’s nightmare), and Future (Melissa Davies) were strikingly sudden and stark. Morgan and Strutt joined Michael Collins (Mr Fezziwig) and Nicola Jane Roberts (Mollie) in the dancing at the Fezziwigs’ family party, and Musgrave offered further, similarly rousing, pastiche during the final festivities when Fred, his wife Rosie (Liberty Spears) and other relatives (Anna Marmion as Lucy, Eleanor Rosser-Smyth as Vickie, Rose Clarke-Williams as Bertie, Rachel Colley as Aunt Louise) entertained themselves with parlour songs and charades.

The final scene was a comforting Christmas card tableau as the Spirits took up position within a gilded frame above the roaring fireplace. Merry Christmas one and all. Though I’m not sure that Scrooge’s scissor-kick of glee was quite apt: Dickens was as much preacher as novelist, and Ebenezer Scrooge needs to have psychological credibility. And, Dickens’ fight has not yet been won, as Margaret Atwood has suggested, ‘“Scrooge Lives!” we might write on our T-shirts.’

Claire Seymour

Thea Musgrave: A Christmas Carol

Ebenezer Scrooge - Giuseppe Pellingra, Fred/Scrooge as a Young Man - Theo Perry, Bob Cratchit - Sandeep Gurrapadi, Mrs Cratchit - Rachel Maby, Belinda Cratchit - Sofia Celenza, Martha Cratchit - Megan Linnell, Harriet Cratchit - Blaize O’Callaghan, Peter Cratchit - Oliver Kotla, Tiny Tim - William Beckingham-Hughes, Mr Fezziwig/Portly Gentleman - Michael Collins, Mrs Fezziwig/Spirit of Christmas Future - Eleanor StruttLiza Fezziwig/Spirit of Christmas Present - Isabelle Morgan, Mollie Fezziwig - Nicola Jane Roberts, Fan -Valva Datenyté, Marley’s Ghost/Marley - Lars Fischer, Aunt Louise - Rachel Colley, Rosie - Liberty Spears, Lucy - Anna Marmion, Vicky - Eleanor Rosser-Smyth, Bertie - Rose Clarke-Williams, Spirit of Christmas Future/Starving Woman - Melissa Davies, Mr Dorrit - Robert Lydon, Charwoman/Great Aunt Ermintrude - Rhian Davies, Fat Man/Topper - Konrad Jaromin, Man with Red Face - Yanou Pauwels, Laundress - Gemma Wahl, Dick Wilkins/Man with Snuff-box - Alexander White, Factory Girl - Charlotte Bröker, Factory Boy - Pablo Boira-Boulding, Scrooge as a Young Boy - Kay Allan, Joe/The Rag-and-Bone Man/Mr Gabriel Grub - Niall Windass, Paper Boy - Tom Hornby, Children under the Cloak - Beth Clarke-Williams/Max Glasser-Batdorff, Carollers and Children’s Chorus; Director - Jennifer Hamilton, Conductor - John Pryce-Jones, Set & Lighting Designer - Ian Sommerville, Projection - Jack Sommerville, Costume Designer - Jo Robinson, Orchestra of Trinity Laban.

Laban Theatre, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London; Saturday 15th December 2018.

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