wed 19/02/2020

Le docteur Miracle, Pop-up Opera, The Running Horse | reviews, news & interviews

Le docteur Miracle, Pop-up Opera, The Running Horse

Le docteur Miracle, Pop-up Opera, The Running Horse

Bizet's culinary operetta with random seasoning, no elixir and no meat

Clementine Lovell, Christopher Diffey, Joseph Kennedy, Helen Bailey and one of the dreaded tambourinesBoth images by Jenny Dale

An orchestral musician recently told me that only one per cent of graduates from UK music colleges go on to take up a post in an established opera company or orchestra. You’d think, given such an alarming statistic, that there would be a lot of very good voices floating around trying to drum up work. Young talent is enterprisingly putting itself out there in a new wave of pub or site-specific fringe performances. I’ve shied away from pocket Verdi and Puccini stagings because I really wonder if those operas can take any but the most highly-trained, opulent voices; anything less is selling them short to newcomers, though you might just hit gold. But surely a modest staging of a bagatelle like Bizet’s precocious one act opérette Le docteur Miracle can’t go far wrong, can it?

I’m afraid it can. The main problem with Pop-up (or is it Popup? Choices must be made) Opera's latest venture isn’t so much the voices as the slapdash and – to me, at any rate, though others laughed – cringingly unfunny staging. Director Darren Royston lists in his biography past experience as a choreographer and movement director, so he should know better than anyone that in a tiny space, the action has to be taut, decisive, stylized if necessary. Especially if you’re going to give silent-film style captions to the plot which attempt to give a contemporary metatext, and not in a good way, to the French songlines and dialogue.

The 18-year old Bizet’s flippant librettists Léon Battu and Ludovic Halévy adapted their most basic of farces from Sheridan’s St Patrick’s Day. It’s pure commedia dell’arte: the Harlequinesque young lover disguises himself first as a factotum in the household of his beloved’s pompous Mayor-father and then, having cooked a disastrous omelette, resourcefully returns as “le Docteur Miracle” to cure a bad case of poisoned Papa: let me marry your daughter, and I’ll let you off the bill for the remedy.

Christopher Diffey as Silvio in Le docteur MiracleWhy this should all need a parallel dumb-show of over-semaphored mobile phone and Masterchef references beats me. Young buck Silvio in camped-up cook disguise repels rather than amuses (Christopher Diffey pictured right); the plot has barely got underway before we’re expected to take a 20-minute break while the omelette (or ommelette, as the captioning at one stage has it in mortifying multiplications) is drummed up.

What’s the site-specific gimmick, given that the setting is a bourgeois household which could be conjured up in just about any space? You’d have thought some parallel culinary activity involving audience tasters would have done the trick. Sadly there isn't any; only alcohol is available, at least at The Running Horse in Mayfair where I saw the show for one night only. Spectators are infantilized into wearing soldiers’ hats and rattling tambourines and triangles in an interpolated Carmen sequence; later they’re asked to “participate” in a game of Hangman. Fun maybe for playschool, not for anyone who has any experience of operatic sophistication or irony.

Helen Bailey takes the limelight with aplomb in the first of three wedding-party encores At least the trios and quartets fizz a little with expert accompaniment from Elizabeth Challenger: the teenage Bizet may not have lavished the melodic gift he shows in the near-contemporary Symphony in C, but it’s an accomplished piece of work. Two of the four singers in the cast I saw did shine at times: Christopher Diffey doesn’t have the high French-tenor ease to take on Nadir’s lovely aria "Je crois entendre encore" from The Pearl Fishers as a preludial croon, but otherwise he’s the real article, if lacking in comic charm, while Helen Bailey, who described herself, uniquely in my experience, as a "Zwischenfach Soprano” but sounds like a perfectly good mezzo, takes the limelight with aplomb in the first of three outrageously grafted-on Carmen wedding-party encores, a stylish Seguidille.

Yet this final arbitrary divertissement only points up how young Bizet’s miracle elixir is simply not enough to sustain even a half-evening’s entertainment. Certainly not when the company is hell-bent on pointing up 'Allo 'Allo absurdities with a wit that’s anything but gracious or focused. And since last night’s establishment was asking £40 a ticket, it’s hard to accept the heavy hand with the good will that might have made it bearable.

Spectators are infantilized into wearing soldiers' hats and rattling tambourines


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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"Not for anyone who has any experience of operatic sophistication or irony" "Pop-up (or is it Popup? Choices must be made)" "the omelette (or ommelette, as the captioning at one stage has it in mortifying multiplications)" Is it plausible or fair to say that a young singer "repels" yet is also "the real article"? This is the most pretentious, supercilious review that I have read in a while.

I was fortunate enough to see this young and talented group perform last year, my friends and I thought they were wonderful. My mouth was wide open as i scrolled through this review. I would like to echo the response made by the previous commenter. Extremely disappointed to find such a pretentious, misleading article on the arts desk.

I think David has mistaken the concept of Popup Opera, and yes, the £40 ticket was inclusive of food and wine, which I hope he enjoyed. Standard tickets are around £15 and make Opera accessible and enjoyable to those not prejudiced by engrained concepts of what Opera MUST be like. Otherwise a most interesting review, though it appears to go against the grain of the other excellent ones I have read today. I think we should be pleased that the 99% of graduates are untied from the stricture of traditionalism, and able to extend the boundaries of performing art in the manner that Popup do.

A courteous response, at least, but whilst I applaud the cheaper prices at other venues - I refer only to the charge levied by the Running Horse, which included a drink but certainly no food and which one of my not very happy friends certainly not suffering from 'engrained concepts of what Opera MUST be like' paid the £40 for - I must remonstrate about 'misunderstanding' the concept. There was nothing radical here, and I wouldn't have had an issue with that if the presentation had been more professional. The singing and playing unquestionably were, but I was invited on the understanding that this would be at a high level.

So it is somewhat patronising to imply that I don't understand what 'untied from the stricture of traditionalism' means. I've seen that approach well achieved by Charles Court Opera at the King's Head, for a start. No reason why this shouldn't improve. It needs to be much, much tighter: anyone in theatre, let alone opera, would tell you so. Why not take that as helpful advice?

I also don't understand how the lady who hasn't seen the show should think me 'misguided' based on a different experience which may indeed have been better. Nor why a good tenor can't be a not so good actor, or at least not be directed as well as he should have been.

The fact that only 1% of graduates from music colleges sign on to opera does not surprise me. I used to go - in the very distant past - to the concert at the end of the courses at RAM. But then, suddenly, the numbers in the concert were all musical theatre. I asked about it. The reply - in surprise that I did not realise the fact - was that of course - where was the chance of employment? Vast in musical theatre. And I could of course see that. I suppose that the young with a voice have to be dedicated to choose the tough route of opera. Maybe there should be ( or is?) a scholarship of high worth that the best voices could apply for and then start the long trail to anything like a real income. The world gives £2000 to the winner of the Leeds Piano Competition and £500 000 to a little dog that runs up and down his mistress in Britain's Got Talent.

Perhaps there is here a reflection of a more general point. If something - music, food, plays etc - is reasonably performed/executed - and enjoyed by many then it is more than acceptable - one can welcome it. But many such performances are not of the first quality and one has also to strive for the best, even if that leaves a large proportion of the population behind. It is I suggest important to make this distinction - valuable and popular, versus high quality. If the two get mixed up there will be endless controversies.

Imagination begets imagination. I was in the audience and while there is no doubt that these performers are talented, the overall production was just too haphazard and in my case, failed completely in the company's objective to broaden the appeal of opera by making it "fun, fresh and intimate". The term pop-up may indicate something less than high-spec but with pop-up, imagination generally fills the gaps. Here we awkwardly faced a performance punctured and pummelled by cringe-inducing and misspelled gags while hanging above us constantly was the step on your grave prospect of having to play - or worse still - watch a fellow mortified audience member play along with a triangle or coconut. Children's tea party style, ticket-holders were asked to add pinches of invisible ingredients to an invisible mixture of invisible production values. I don't like to write negative reviews and as I've said above, I believe there was real talent on show but it is jarring that this was presented as a production to broaden the appeal of opera by bringing it to those who might be hesitant. If the ticket price of £40 doesn't make the uninitiated and hesitant shy then the coconuts certainly will.

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