sat 04/04/2020

We Are Shadows, Spitalfields Music | reviews, news & interviews

We Are Shadows, Spitalfields Music

We Are Shadows, Spitalfields Music

The 2011 Summer Festival ends with an operatic community celebration

Spitalfields Summer Music Festival is now finished for another year, but bid farewell to its audiences in fitting style with We Are Shadows – a new community opera devised by composer John Barber and librettist Hazel Gould. Bringing together over 200 local participants, whether as singers and performers or working behind the scenes to usher this two-year project to fruition, it’s a show that celebrates not only the talents of the Spitalfields community, but also that most universal of London icons: the rat.

Inspired in part by Hans Christian Andersen’s nightmarish fable The Shadow, Gould and Barber have created a contemporary myth of their own. We meet the grubby Rattus Rattus, king of rats; condemned to a life of darkness and underground isolation, denied the sunshine and the company of a shadow, he sneaks out one night and steals a shadow from Toby, a city worker. When Toby realises his loss he returns to confront Rattus, persuading him to risk the dazzling light above ground and discover his own ratty shadow-companion.

Like all the best fables there’s an internal logic to Gould’s story (mirrored in the rhymes and repetitions of her text) that creates an elegant arc of a plot. With children from St Anne’s and Thomas Buxton primary schools providing a chorus of rats and adult singers from the Spitalfields Singers and Women Sing East providing a chorus of city workers, the work – conceived as “opera in pieces” – also allows each ensemble to showcase its skills before coming together in a full-company final section.

Barber’s score, orchestrated for an eight-strong chamber ensemble, is coloured by the distinctive sonorities of accordion and harp, giving it a jaunty, playful edge. Proceedings are darkened for the more sombre moments in the rat kingdom by a bass clarinet and cello, and the overall effect is of a rather intellectual ensemble of French café musicians, wryly witty but with a copy of Sartre stashed in their instrument cases. Tonal but by no means shying away from discord, Barber’s music creates an attractive sound world – accessible without ever being patronising.

Most impressively, the score also features sections of music that are the result of community workshops – a genuinely collaborative effort. The jaunty little rats’ refrain and chorus for city workers on their lunchbreak both owe their origins to participants, and it says much of Barber’s skill that they become so organic a part of his musical whole.

Also part of the workshop process, and singing collectively as the voice of Toby’s shadow (acted/danced by Krystian Godlewski) were five members of The Sixteen. Occupying an unearthly sonority of their own (its cluster chords making more than a nod to Eric Whitacre), their polished singing brought the magic needed to bring the story from project to performance, occupying a contrasting space to the other two choruses.

All credit to the men of the Spitalfields Festival Chorus, who though few in number sang bravely, and tunefully, rivalling the sturdy tones of the women. While I would have loved more eye contact from the adults, the children were far less bashful, with an acrobatic semi-chorus of rats offering all the personality and energy you could hope for. The dynamic between the children and both Adam Green’s Rattus and Robert Anthony Gardiner’s Toby was of exuberant chumminess, and added greatly to the atmosphere of the piece.

Too often community opera can disappoint, dumbing down until it pleases neither the community it serves nor the artists employed to create. Here, a really serious score (offering more personality and more skilled orchestration than this year’s batch of OperaShots up at Covent Garden’s Linbury Theatre) and top-class professional singing, invited its local collaborators to step up and match them for quality, a challenge they met in spades. I only hope we don’t have to wait another two years for a sequel.

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I really enjoyed your intelligent review, not least as one of the bravely tuneful men of chorus. But I felt I had to add something. It's easily done, of course, as we now know from the opera, but haven't you overlooked the shadow?! He was such a big, silent part of the show, and brought brilliantly "alive" by Krystian G. Just my opinion...

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