Hansel, Gretel, Isolde, Sonya and Kitty

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks dividing time largely between Glyndebourne, at one fairly obvious extreme, and, at the other, the Tete-a-Tete Opera Festival at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith.

Hansel und Gretel never loses its charm and I enjoy Laurent Pelly’s clever and very physical production featuring the supermarket from hell. My compliments to the designer of the supermarket-house with all its pushy-pully bits and pieces. I can now report that when the witch falls from the roof, there’s a huge pile of foam cubes waiting to catch him/her beneath – and the chocolate eggs are not real.

This year Alice Coote has shone as an irresistible Hansel and there’s an auspicious debut as the Sandman from the youthful Irish mezzo Tara Erraught. Robin Ticciati, conducting from memory (ah, what it is to be young), brought out a wealth of glittering detail in the orchestral writing that kept the magic fizzing all the way through. 

Ticciati is definitely one to watch, and here’s another: Irmgard Vilsmaier, who nearly stole the show as H&G’s mum. The balance between the singers has settled now, but at the beginning of the run her voice seemed so much larger than everyone else’s that it was easy to see both H&G-the-characters as the children of Isolde and H&G-the-opera as the musical grandchild of Wagner. Vilsmaier has been singing plenty of big-daddy Wagner in the two years since first appearing in this role at Glyndebourne, and I have the impression that her voice has developed. Good then, magnificent now.

Back in west London, matters were taking a very different direction at the Tete-a-Tete Opera Festival, where for over two weeks each summer you can hear several different contemporary operas every day for the price of a sandwich apiece. I decided, though, to resist the festival’s offer of free entry if dressed convincingly enough as a mermaid. It would have been difficult to get the appropriate tail & tresses into the 33 bus.

I’m still reeling from the impact of Will Todd‘s The Screams of Kitty Genovese which I attended on Saturday – it’s now at the Edinburgh Fringe, so catch it there if you can. Todd wrote it initially in 1999, but it has been through several incarnations and now has a polish and pace that would be the envy of certain apparently glitzier creations. In one act, an hour and a half long, Todd and his librettist David Simpatico take apart the true story of the night in 1964 when 38 New York neighbours apparently watched and did nothing while a young girl was stabbed to death below their windows.

In an idiom of 1960s rock, spilling through West End musical conventions and cutting-edge contemporary sounds with some very demanding singing, the company creates a sizeable cast of completely believable characters, each with a viewpoint and insights which we can empathise – even the murderer. There’s the young couple with a baby by whom they’re alternately mesmerised and exasperated; there’s the older woman seducing the young car mechanic (cue on-stage oral sex); the cynical janitor, the lonely singleton, the health and self-improvement fanatic who slams his door in the face of the dying Kitty.

Claustrophobic, terrifying, unsettlingly tuneful and all too human, it was what you could term ‘relevant’ if you wanted to. But it’s more than that: it’s a brilliantly realised tale for our times and an opera to match, straddling and squashing artificial genre boundaries as it steams towards the inevitable tragedy. Emotionally it’s deeply uncomfortable, as it should be; musically it’s raw, passionate, noisy and dazzling. Brilliant performances from the whole cast. My friend kindly gave me a lift home afterwards, which was nice because I was scared of the dark by then.

My first visit to Hammersmith was for Neal Thornton (aka Mr Sally Burgess)’s Sonya’s Story, based on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Burgess herself directed it. You can read my review of this in today’s Independent.

Rupert Christiansen, George Hall, and David Nice heard some more of the pieces on offer.

Bugbear now: certain contemporary operas that the Big Boys have staged in past years, with all the associated glamour, publicity and expense, have sent me scurrying for the earplugs. I cringed and cursed through some and fled others at half time. One or two could have benefitted from total revision. And then you go to Hammersmith and the air’s shimmering with the fun of the effort and the openness of minds. This is where the thumping heart of creativity lies. Next year I’m getting a season ticket.

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