With a cast and crew made up entirely of second, third year and Master’s music, design and production students, the Bath Spa opera has and continues to enjoy a well-deserved reputation. The casts rotate their roles to maximise opportunity and challenge those involved.
A professional and elaborate set impresses first – stone columns, suspended stained glass and a cleverly constructed well create the convent which is the sole location for this first opera by Giacomo Puccini. The orchestra, under the direction of Daryl Powell, strike up subtly followed by an off-stage chorus of nuns ghostly, sweet and beautifully balanced and blended; they trill and frolic playfully together with the entire cast fully engaging with their characters.
Jenna Aird as sister Angelica, the young nun with a shameful past, is vocally outstanding throughout and does not hold back during her character’s more dramatic scenes. Sister Angelica barely leaves the stage and has it to herself for much of the opera. Ms. Aird copes well with this, holding our attention with her solo acting and vocal confidence. Solid support comes from Tia Lynch as Sister Genevieve and members of the chorus stepping forward for their solo moments.
The mood is unmistakeably altered with the arrival of the Princess, Angelica’s aunt. Hannah Scott, with a permanent expression of distaste and alto voice, is cold and convincing as she informs Sister Angelica that she must sign her inheritance away to her more virtuous younger sister who is to be married. The Princess then deliver’s the devastating news that Angelica’s illegitimate son has been dead for some time. Wailing with grief, Angelica no longer sees a reason not to sign and decides to poison herself. She begs forgiveness for this mortal sin and, as she dies, is reunited with her son who takes the form of a projection onto the back wall.
Gershwin’s tongue in cheek, potted opera is short and sweet and deliberately hammy as it points out the often bizarre and bewildering nature of opera. Following the interval, the cast reappears transformed from their plain and identical habits into colourful and beautifully designed 1920’s gear. The orchestra, now lead by Kris Nock, turns into a band. The afore-mentioned well opens-up to become a bar and double bassist Marcus Day takes to stage as Sam in a charming and comic turn as the put-upon barman. The chorus are partying flappers and dapper gents providing bustle and excitement with a delightful Charleston-inspired dance routine and pantomime gasps at every shocking revelation.
Mike, the bar owner, played by Asher Randall opens with a prologue rather as Tonio does in Pagliacci. He sings of love, jealousy, hatred and passion which are the generally the subject matter of most operas.
Maria Liu, convincingly coquettish as Sweetpea, does not play hard to get in her attempts to flirt with a slightly terrified Sam. Richard Hall is suitably smug as club singer Tom who claims that he alone is responsible the bar’s success and Chloe Atkins is vocally impressive as the sassy Vi.
Vi is searching for gambler Joe, played by Oliver Joseph, a very sweet tenor sporting a silent movie-style curled moustache. His ego bruised by Vi’s refusal of his advances, Tom tells her this telegram is from another woman sending Vi into a jealous rage. In the space of five minutes there is a misunderstanding, a shooting, a remorseful plea, forgiveness and death. The telegram was informing Joe his mother has been dead all along.
Two completely contrasting musical and theatrical styles are convincingly and enthusiastically pulled off by both cast and orchestra. Being the first performance of a four-night run, there is some lack of the pace and energy that comes with confidence and assurance. Even from the second row the (unamplified) vocals are not entirely audible over the musicians however to be so is a tall technical order. Overall, an engaging, moving and thoroughly enjoyable pair of productions.
Review by Alice Perry
Photos by Nick Spratling.