Michael Tanner

Why do directors of comic opera encourage performers not to behave like human beings?

Why do directors of comic opera encourage performers not to behave like human beings?
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The Royal Academy of Music's Sir Jack Lyons Theatre is closing, whether for refurbishment or to make way for something more ambitious I don't know. It's a place where I have spent many great evenings, with immense amounts of young vocal talent - most of it never heard of again - under the batons of Colin Davis, Jane Glover and other superb conductors. Next year's productions will be in Hackney, Shoreditch and in the underground hangar across the Marylebone Road.

To bring the curtain down on the old theatre, the RAM chose two comic English one-acters, of a certain vintage, the 1950s - that abused decade. The first was Walton's The Bear, from Chekhov. The main trouble with it is that it isn't at all funny, though there were a couple of conscientious guffawers in the audience trying to persuade the rest of us that it is. It's about a determinedly grieving widow, sung with abandon by Anna Harvey, whose voice we must surely be hearing in Wagner before long. The first moments of the music are clearly by the composer of Fa├žade, but that's really the end of the fun, despite laboured attempts to parody more successful contemporaries.

The direction included a superfluous cat who turned up again in Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement, a much more winning piece of work, about down-on-their-luck nobility and their preparation of a meal for a Grand Duchess and her desirable son. Unlike the Walton, this seems worth an occasional outing, as does much of Berkeley's output. It was admirably sung, but both here and in The Bear there was a pervasive tendency to think that comic opera requires its performers not to behave like human beings, but to pounce and ponce around the stage. That is understandable, though annoying, in huge places such as the Coliseum, but in cute small theatres it embarrasses, and should be one of the first things that the staff persuade would-be operatic performers to abandon. But I've been saying that for decades, and made no difference.

Anyway, it was a tolerable evening, all told, though one that I'd have preferred to see celebrated in grand style - Mozart, specifically, who always seemed what they did best. Let's hope they do again when they re-open. Meanwhile, it will be very interesting to see how they fare in the wide open spaces of the Hackney Empire etc.