Presenting Der Schauspieldirektor and Bastien und Bastienne in the same evening risks us seeing them both simply as one-act Mozart operas. In reality, however, they are quite different. The former premiered in 1786 when the composer was somewhere near the height of his powers, simultaneously working on Le nozze di Figaro, three piano concertos and several other major works. It was actually his entry in a competition instigated by Emperor Joseph II that pitted German singspiel against Italian opera buffa. Thus, this work and Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole were performed simultaneously at opposite ends of the orangery of the Schönbrunn Palace on 7 February 1786.
The date and context in which it was written explain why it possesses the outstanding arias ‘Bester Jüngling’ and ‘Da schlägt die Abschiedsstunde’, in which the seeds of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ can be traced, and yet overall is ‘a parody on the vanity of singers’. Although technically the low ratio of music (there are just four vocal numbers) to spoken dialogue could be described as typical for singspiel, it feels as if Mozart and librettist Gottlieb Stephanie were consciously acknowledging the commission to create something in this genre by, in practice, pushing it to extremes.
Bastien und Bastienne, on the other hand, was written in 1768 when Mozart was just twelve. Although also a one-act singspiel, it features many melodies in the French manner, even if at least two arias represent true German Lieder. In spite of their differences, however, Pop-up Opera, Clementine Lovell’s innovative company that can be performing in the Thames Tunnel Shaft one evening and at The Tythe Barn in Oxfordshire the next, has found a clever way to link the two.
Der Schauspieldirektor tells the story of two actresses who audition for a theatre company and then argue over who should have the highest billing and pay. This leads to many hilarious moments as ‘each lady sings about the nobility of her art while trying to defeat her rival with ever higher notes’. In the end, however, agreement is reached and the piece ends with the quartet ‘Jeder Künstler strebt nach Ehre’ (Every artist strives for glory). In this version, however, the opera the company is striving to stage is Bastien und Bastienne and, with the story being told in the modern day, it is struggling to do so because it is on the verge of financial collapse. Its tenuous position has already meant it has only had the resources to produce The Stag Do of Figaro and The Magic Recorder. Now, with the complete withdrawal of Arts Council funding, it is entirely dependent on the wealthy Monsieur Vogelsang agreeing to fund both his fiancée Madame Herz, and her rival soprano, Mademoiselle Silberklang.
In this way, Pop-Up Opera, under the direction of Anna Pool, tells the story with a great deal of flair and humour. The backdrop of red velvety curtains framed by a huge heart with lights makes the setting feel suitably theatrical, while being portable enough to be placed in any of the venues in which the company is performing (in this instance, Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club). All of the singing is in German and, although there are not full surtitles, large screens paraphrase what is being sung, while introducing many jokes in the process. Although Harry Percival has deliberately gone out of his way to make the language feel colloquial and earthy, the written lines still remind us of how some things just sound more romantic in another tongue!
In the past, Pop-Up Opera has presented its humorous paraphrases in the style of silent movie captions, but here they appear as scribbled memos, or lines in a script, both of which might typically be found in a theatre. One particularly amusing caption describes a lengthy section sung by the character Buff. It simply states that his exposition is a convoluted joke based on the fact that Buff sounds like buffo, and that it does not really make much sense in German either!
The players perform with gusto, with particular accolades going to Sarah Helena Foubert and Hazel McBain as Madame Herz and Mademoiselle Silberklang. While showing an excellent penchant for comic timing, they deliver strong vocal performances of ‘Da schlägt die Abschiedsstunde’ and the rondo ‘Bester Jüngling’ respectively, with Foubert’s firm and striking tone contrasting well with McBain’s sweet and supple instrument.
It seems a slight shame that, having seen Bastien und Bastienne set up in the first opera, neither of the actresses who in Der Schauspieldirektor show themselves so determined to star in it then actually do so. Still, this hardly matters once we start to enjoy the similarly splendid soprano of Laura Cheetham, which combines fullness with excellent phrasing, as Bastienne.
In the opera the soothsayer (or charlatan) Colas plays on the insecurities of the two pastoral lovers Bastien and Bastienne. By encouraging the fear each possesses that the other has lost interest, and suggesting to each that they should feign indifference, he can then take the credit, and be rewarded handsomely, for their final reconciliation by claiming it was down to his spells.
In this updating to the modern day, Colas becomes a ‘relationship guru’, complete with miniature Buddha and golden cat ornament with waving paw. This is clever because, with the captions now alluding to case notes, the fact that he has met each individually and confidentially explains why he is able to manipulate them so completely. With the ‘orchestra’ consisting entirely of Assistant Musical Director Conal Bembridge-Sayers on an electronic keyboard, the beauty of the evening lies in its ability to pare resources down to an absolute minimum. It is the resulting immediacy that enables Pop-Up Opera to generate such an intimate and innovative approach to entertaining us all.
Pop-Up Opera is touring Der Schauspieldirektor / Bastien und Bastienne to various locations around London and the United Kingdom until 29 July. For full details of venues and casts (which vary over the run) visit the designated website.