Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Sofa / The Departure @ Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London

13, 15, 17 November 2007

The talented young artists of this year’s Independent Opera production at Sadlers Wells brought an abundance of energy to Elizabeth Maconchy’s already exuberant operatic writing. In her centenary year, the all too short run in the tiny Lilian Baylis theatre scoops Maconchy’s one-act operas, written in the late fifties/early sixties, from near-oblivion. At the same time, it provides a fine showcase for the company.

With a libretto by Ursula Vaughan Williams, The Sofa is a surrealistic fairy-tale in which a playboy Prince is turned into a sofa by his Witch Grandmother. The only way he can escape from his plight is if a couple copulate on him and his tarty girlfriend is only too happy to oblige with the first man she can lay her hands on.

Director Alessandro Talevi‘s decision to update the piece to the present day may actually work against it. The original production was set in the 18th Century and a degree of constraint might have helped temper Maconchy’s already full-on orchestral writing. 45 minutes of party, party, party, with non-stop abandon (lines of coke in operas is starting to look old-hat) and over-busy direction was quite enough of this relentlessly wacky material.

Sarah Tynan‘s wealth of experience showed in her spiky portrayal of the sexy, tattooed Monique, whose amorous wanderings eventually free the lad. As the wayward layabout, tenor Nicholas Sharratt was sharp and sympathetic, his transformation into the sofa nicely achieved. Josephine Thorpe and George von Bergen brought a maturity of sound to the Witch and the new boyfriend, while Alinka KozariAnna Leese and Patricia Orr made an attractive trio of dippy birds, whose backsides seemed to help relieve the boredom of being a piece of furniture.

For all the exuberance and spot-on singing, surtitles were badly needed during The Sofa, in part due to Maconchy’s dense writing but also because of a lack of attention to diction from most of the cast. Dominic Wheeler conducted his 15-piece band with great relish but could have shown greater awareness of the need for balance in so small a venue, at times swamping the singers and adding to the audibility problem.

The Departure is an altogether more reflective piece, both dramatically and musically. A wife, puzzled by the absence of her husband discovers that she has died in a car crash and must make a final farewell to the world and those she loves. It is a poignant and affecting work, never rising to the lacerating beauty of Britten’s ghostly tales but hinting at their quality and depth. Louise Poole gave a strong performance as Julia and it was easy to see why Håkan Vramsmo had won the plum role of Mark in the two-hander. His rich baritone, reminiscent of the young Gerald Finley, gave the outstanding vocal performance of the evening.

The work of Independent Opera, and its Artist Support scheme, is certainly admirable, providing a showcase and ongoing support for artists under the age of 30. This double-bill is not going to re-write the history of twentieth century music or even bring about a major renaissance for Maconchy. For those present over the three performances, though, it was a very worthwhile revival and the proposed recording will be a valuable chance for others to sample this semi-forgotten music. The prospect of a chamber production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande from the company next year is a mouth-watering one.

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