Covid has been many things to the arts — most of them unprintable. A plague, a scourge, a disaster from which many institutions and artists won’t recover, it has also been a great equaliser. Suddenly there’s space to be heard, silence to be filled. In a digital world no one cares about the size of your stage. All you need is a laptop and a good idea and you’re competing alongside the Met or the Royal Opera.
In the case of the Virtual Opera Project it was a shed and a homemade green-screen. Oh, and a cast, chorus and creative team of well over 100. And did I mention the London Philharmonic Orchestra?
A brainchild of the first lockdown back in March, VOpera’s new film of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is the best kind of small project. Big energy and, one assumes, even bigger chutzpah somehow turned director Rachael Hewer’s kitchen-table scheme into a major undertaking with the kind of starry participants who’d normally be spending their summers at Glyndebourne or Glimmerglass.
If watching opera has become difficult during lockdown, then making it is all but impossible. Zoom auditions and rehearsals; singers asked to film and record themselves in their homes; a director forced to build her own special effects studio at the bottom of the garden; engineers painstakingly mixing orchestral tracks with umpteen solo vocal lines: Ravel’s opera may be short, but the process behind this production is immense.
The results are enchanting — or they would be if there were the least bit of sentimentality or kitsch to them. Ravel’s opera may be a child’s fantasy of talking squirrels and bats, armchairs and grandfather clocks come to life, but the emotions — all-consuming, vindictive rage, loneliness, remorse — are absolutely real. Drawing on lockdown experiences of frustrated children forced to learn at home, anxious parents turned reluctant teachers, families trapped together, this contemporary telling nudges Ravel’s first world war fairy tale into the now.
Designer Leanne Vandenbussche and illustrators Rosie Brooks and Pearl Bates have created an animated world of clean cartoon-modernity. After the black-and-white tedium of the schoolroom, the Child (Amelie Turnage) is plunged into colour. But imagination never strays too far from reality, so Ravel’s insects and frogs become rattling dustbins outside in a deserted high street, his elegant toile-de-Jouy characters a procession of grubby soft toys, and — most disarming — the eventual return home to safety sees the cast transported digitally into the empty opera houses we’ve all been exiled from.
Musically it’s top-notch. Conductor Lee Reynolds has worked wonders to preserve the colours of Ravel’s score in his reduced orchestration, and the LPO balance the zesty, matter-of-fact visuals with the sensuous enjoyment of their playing. Emily Edmonds’s Enfant — gloriously, warmly sung — is more woman than child, and seems to speak for every regressed lockdown adult among us. Wagnerian mezzo Karen Cargill sings a larger-than-life Mother, the first of a dizzying sequence of spot-the-cameos that also includes Marcus Farnsworth as a sardonic Armchair, Sarah Hayashi as the sharp-tongued Fire and Jane Monari, delivering a witty new text as the Chinese Cup.
Also breaking new ground is the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, who this week streamed London’s first fully staged, full-length evening of opera since March. Unlike the Royal Opera’s recent smash-and-grab of assorted musical odds and ends, this was a coherent, satisfying evening of real operas — three of them, just in case, after months of deprivation, one wasn’t enough.
Between them, Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna, Mascagni’s Zanetto and Donizetti’s Rita span the full gamut of human experience. Love, loss, wife-beating, wife-swapping and smoking are the headlines — we are in Italy, after all. It’s more than enough for GSMD’s talented students to get their teeth into, and thanks to some inventive solutions from director Stephen Medcalf they chew up what remains of the scenery in Cordelia Chisholm’s minimal, contemporary, Covid-secure designs.
This isn’t a time for clever understatement, and the marital contretemps between Susanna and her suspicious husband are played for belly laughs. Sitcom-style fourth-wall breaking makes a virtue of the streamed set-up, and there’s more than a hint of Basil Fawlty to Adam Maxey’s stiff-hipped Count Gil. Wolf-Ferrari writes a gorgeous tune, and the whole thing is the perfect disposable pleasure. Rather like Susanna’s own little nicotine-infused secret…
Zanetto and Rita are scarcely more substantial. But where Rita distils several hours of intrigue into a frothy foam of coloratura and a couple of witty ensembles, two-hander Zanetto swells the seed of an idea into an epic. The cast sell the thwarted loves of Silvia and minstrel Zanetto with all they’ve got, but Mascagni’s outpourings are brutally punctured by Donizetti at his most pithily, cruelly sardonic. Sandwiching an oozing verismo treat between two salty comedies is the operatic equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. I say tuck in: it may be the last we get for a while.