One of the delights of West Green House Opera is that its programming allows audiences to enjoy more than one event on the same day so that they can get more out of their time, and spend an afternoon exploring the beautiful gardens between the lunchtime and evening performances.
The schedule is also planned so that the viewer can have two quite different experiences as, for example, Offenbach’s comedy Ba-ta-clan appears alongside the more emotive Madama Butterfly. The former, as a one act operetta or ‘chinoiserie musicale’, is perfectly suited to the intimate Lakeside Pavilion where it is presented by director Morag Joss, conductor James Sherlock and Ensemble Passio. The same team was behind Rita here last year, and now, if anything, it has managed to top even the outstanding sense of fun that it brought to Donizetti’s creation.
Ba-ta-clan of 1855 was Offenbach’s first major success, satirising everything from contemporary politics to grand opera conventions. Joss, who is best known for writing psychological thrillers, decided to rewrite the piece so that it explored themes to which we can all relate. So the setting of Ché-i-no-or (China) is dropped and the opera is instead set in the rehearsal for an opera with the assembled cast, in a joke regarding the ludicrousness of the original, desperately trying to work out what the plot actually is. It uses this as the basis for satirising opera, as Offenbach himself did, with the soprano lamenting in her aria that she always dies, but that she does not care as long as she gets to sing.
Jokes regarding performers’ egos abound as the two tenors battle for supremacy, while the baritone, as he sports a fantastic costume, enjoys playing Death, who will surely come to everyone in the story. There are also many jokes that break the fourth wall as the performers ‘improvise’ a finale, being fearful of what the audience might do if they don’t give them what they want. However, while much of the humour might seem to represent well-trodden ground, the standard of the jokes and rewritten libretto is far above that to be found in the creations of most opera companies that dip their toe into similar waters. For example, both the tenor and soprano proclaim that, despite being allergic, they own two cats named Tamino and Rodolfo and Pamina and Mimì respectively, which is a clever way of revealing their pretensions and aspirations.
The joke that brings the house down, however, is when each performer receives a text from Wasfi Kani offering them work at Grange Park Opera, thus proving that they have made it! It is good to see West Green House Opera having the (totally justified) confidence to send itself up in this way, and with such a strong cast in tow – Raphaela Papadakis as the soprano, Andrew Henley and Jack Roberts as the rival tenors, Jan Capinski as the baritone and Paul Ham as the narrator – we can only hope that a Joss / Sherlock collaboration is a regular feature of future seasons.
In the larger Green Theatre another established director / conductor partnership, in the form of Richard Studer and Jonathan Lyness, works its magic with Madama Butterfly in a simple but highly sensitive staging. The set, also designed by Studer, consists of James Wyld’s 1861 map of the world divided into several vertical panels. Although it was deliberately devised to provide a flexible backdrop, as it is also used for West Green House’s other main production Candide, it hints at the East / West divide that lies at the heart of the story. These panels are set alternately forward and back at the rear of the stage so that people can walk between them as if down a corridor. This provides a very effective infrastructure for Cio-Cio-San’s first entrance as she passes between the panels as part of a procession so that at first we only catch glimpses of her. The same technique is also employed for other entrances including Yamadori’s own.
The rest of the set comprises a series of platforms and walkways, which create an elegant setting in which the drama can unfold, and remain simple enough to ensure there are no unnecessary distractions. As a result, we really invest emotionally in the characters as they communicate their feelings so readily, whether it be Cio-Cio-San steeped in total anguish and despair, or Sharpless bleeding inside as he strives to retain an element of decorum. The evening would still not be as effective were the performers not strong enough to make their presence felt. However, Katie Bird is magnificent as Cio-Cio-San as her soprano reveals immense shape and control to produce lines that are as striking as they are precise. Robyn Lyn Evans reveals a brilliantly expansive tenor as Pinkerton, Robert Davies, with his splendid baritone, provides an immensely sensitive portrayal of Sharpless, while from among the more minor characters the power in Timothy Dawkins’ bass makes for a truly chilling moment when The Bonze enters.
There are also a host of excellent touches. For example, most productions dress Yamadori (Johnny Herford) in traditional Japanese costume as a means of contrasting him, and thus the way in which we presume he would treat Cio-Cio-San, with Pinkerton. Here, however, he wears Western-style tails, which could hint at his aspirations and suggest that he is really no better than the American. This is clever because he actually says he has been married several times with divorce setting him free, which at least gives us reason to doubt his assertion that he would swear eternal faith to Cio-Cio-San.