Not only can opera pop up in the most unlikely of places but, when it is produced by a company that specialises in innovation, it frequently does. On Monday night Popup Opera’s production of Bizet’s one act opera Le Docteur Miracle appeared at Drink, Shop & Do near King’s Cross, and over the coming weeks it will be touring to a variety of venues around London and the UK.
The composer wrote Le Docteur Miracle at the age of 18 for a competition organised by Offenbach. He was awarded joint first prize (with Charles Lecocq) and was rewarded by seeing the piece performed eleven times at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens in 1857.
Based on a libretto that was a French adaptation of Sheridan’s St Patrick’s Day, this one act chamber opera sees the Mayor Le Podestat attempt to prevent the dashing young Silvio from taking the hand of his daughter Laurette. To outwit the Mayor, Silvio disguises himself as the chef Pasquin who makes the entire family a supposedly perfect omelette that, in the event, tastes awful. It transpires it was poisoned and that a certain Doctor Miracle is the only one who can save Le Podestat, who ate by far the largest portion. He will only do so, however, in return for Laurette’s hand and, after the Mayor agrees to this deal, Doctor Miracle reveals himself to be Silvio!
One of the great delights of opera on such a small scale is that far greater liberties can be taken with works. If, at the Coliseum, Deborah Warner or Calixto Bieito attempted to insert excerpts from Les Pêcheurs de Perles and Carmen to make Le Docteur Miracle feel more substantial they would be slated by critics and audience alike. Popup Opera, however, can make such additions all part and parcel of its novel approach. There are no surtitles as such, but instead captions are projected onto a screen. The Overture itself is accompanied by the type of actions seen in silent movies, with the Mayor’s thoughts such as ‘It would help my political image if I married’ being written up loud and clear. There are also topical references to texting, facebook, the horsemeat scandal, celebrity chefs and even genetically modified chicken feed!
The score is played on a single keyboard, and although this is not necessarily the ideal way to enjoy Bizet’s music, with very strong performances from Robert Lomax as Silvio, Aurélia Jonvaux as Laurette, Benjamin Seifert as Le Podestat and Sarah Champion as the Mayor’s wife, it hardly matters. Besides, such intimacy lies at the heart of the experience. The audience are seated inches from the performers and at Drink, Shop & Do, the setting of a large neoclassical hall was perfect. It has now been converted into a bar with huge protruding counter, but the essential features remain. The end of the hall is a very natural area for performance, with a large central door proving well placed for entrances and exits, and acting as a framing device for the drama.
The evening finishes with three ‘encores’ from Carmen, in which mentions of other operas are made on the screen. This act of cross-referencing seems highly appropriate in a work that saw Bizet draw so heavily from other pieces. The arrival of Silvio disguised as Pasquin feels highly similar to Count Almaviva appearing as a soldier in Doctor Bartolo’s house, while his entrance as Doctor Miracle feels reminiscent of Despina as she disguises herself as the notary. Similarly, although Le Podestat does not want Laurette for himself (he is her father, after all), in all other respects he is a Doctor Bartolo or Don Pasquale attempting to stand in the way of two young lovers.
Executed to a high standard, this Le Docteur Miracle is a huge amount of fun, and as I watched I even managed to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition! So often have I watched ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient’, and thought how much I would love to join in, that it was a pleasant surprise when from my front row seat I was able to do so by playing the tambourine thrust into my hand. I even got to sing the final refrain of the Toreador Song!
Casts vary over the run. Popup Opera’s Le Docteur Miracle appears at various venues around London and the UK until 3 May. For further details visit the Popup Opera website.