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Swallow Flies

14 Sep

I enjoy Jonathan Dove’s operas – Flight, Pinocchio and Enchanted Pig may not be the most up-to-the-minute pieces of work musically but they make for seriously enjoyable, accessible evenings in the theatre and they deserve their success. So I was looking forward to seeing his first full length opera – The Little Green Swallow – done by British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre on 13th September, which also gave me the opportunity to hear some young singers and indulge in star spotting.

To be honest, it feels like a first opera.  The libretto, which Dove himself arranged from Gozzi’s sequel to Love of Three Oranges, seems to me to make a lot of mistakes – a major love interest only gets to sing in the final act, we never really understand until too late what the Swallow is and why he gets to marry another of the leading characters and, with five couples on the stage at the end there are probably too many major characters for two hours twenty of music.  Then musically you often feel that he hasn’t worked out when to stop.  There’s a quartet in the first Act where two characters discover that their parents think they are bastards – you get fed up of the repetitions of the word “bastards”, not because there’s a problem with the word but because it just gets boring.  The ensembles generally suffer from an uncertainty about when they should end.  Orchestrally, you long for something other than John Adams-ish ostinato beginning every musical number and long for a bit more individual musical characterisation of the characters.

Having said that, there are quite a lot of virtues.  Dove writes very gratefully for the voice: you hear the crucial words and thesse came across really well in Adam Pollock’s excellent translation from the Italian.  Above all, he writes ensembles: it’s a joy to have so many quartets, sextets and septets.  Watching this, you sense a composer who loves the operatic form, is at ease with its conventions and keen to exploit them.  Dove has written and, I hope, will write better operas but this is confident, enjoyable first attempt.

The cast struck me as talented and all the roles were well taken.  I was impressed by Adam Temple-Smith as Renzo who has a very good light-ish tenor voice that sounded to me as if it would be very good in Rossini if he has the top for it.  Filipa van Eck started off a light, soubrettish soprano as Barbarina but developed real depth and feeling as the role went on.  Emma Kerr as Ninetta has two major arias and her large, dramatic voice struck me as having very significant potential – she has a personality that makes you watch her as well and she turned what could be a very passive role into something interesting.  Ed Ballard displayed a nice personality and good baritone as the Papageno-like Truffaldino and Joseph Padfield, whom I’ve seen at the Guildhall recently, was an alert, puzzled King.  Elizabeth Karani had great fun as the wicked queen.  Tom Verney, as the Swallow, displayed a more than promising counter-tenor even if the role didn’t give him much scope for acting.  Ditto for Eirlys Myfanwy Davies and the statue Pompea (really good in her Act III number) and Matt Buswell as the other statue, Colman.

As you may gathered, the opera requires some magical effects – people transformed into statues and animals, singing apples and so forth.  It was apparently effortlessly staged by Stuart Barker with outstanding designs and puppet effects from Simon Bejer.  Colourful costumes and props against a black background struck me as absolutely right and the singers moved well and acted strongly.  These two strike me as seriously talented individuals who ought to be used more often.

Lionel Friend conducted, as you would expect, expertly.  He was considerate to his singers and got the Southbank Sinfonia playing really well.

I had the sense that, for all its flaws, this opera was hugely enjoyed by the performers and by the audience while the performance itself pretty much made the best case you could imagine for the work.  It’s a good piece for students and, I would also say, for the young children in the audience.