My Light Shines On – The Telephone

Music & Libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti

Directed by Daisy Evans

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s a reason we’re asked to turn off our phones before a live performance, and The Telephone shows us precisely why. Filmed under lockdown conditions at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, Scottish Opera presents a contemporary take on Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1947 piece. Reminding us all of the company’s innovative potential, this short film seeks to connect with a new generation of opera lovers, bringing together 21st-century technology with a centuries-old art form.

This adaptation provides a relatable story of unanswered love, phone chargers and cocktails, while using all the melodrama akin to opera that they can muster. The Telephone finds friends Lucy (Soraya Mafi) & Ben (Jonathan McGovern) meeting for a quick drink before Ben departs for London. With love on his mind, Ben wants nothing more than to confess his feelings for Lucy. Unfortunately for Ben, Lucy is too blinded by her dying phone signal, frustratingly focusing on everyone and everything else except him.

While we are not able to go to the King’s Theatre ourselves, it’s wonderful to see the beloved venue framed in such a rich and diverse series of cinematic angles. Carlo D’Alessandro’s direction of photography elevates Scottish Opera’s film away from solely being a piece of orchestrated melody, instead making it an exceptional short film of its own volition. D’Alessandro and director Daisy Evans capture the heart of both mediums, with the grandeur of opera measuring up to the intimacy of film – though maybe leaning a little heavily on the lens flares.

The film and opera’s shared intensity sells the performance in a compact experience: where an opera traditionally has hours to lay out a spectrum of emotions, The Telephone achieves an equal amount of sentiment in under half an hour. By opting for a contemporary retelling – integrating the reliance on phones, messaging apps and Instagram references into the narrative – the company prevents the story feeling stale. What is more, the graphics and ‘pops’ of emojis and reactions are somehow reminiscent of the extravagance opera is usually known for.

Despite this exaggerated nature, Menotti’s libretto is as bouncy and flowing as the musical accompaniment. As an opera for a new generation the language is accessible and direct, peppered with enough romance to raise a smile. Pulled off triumphantly by McGovern, the audience has little issue empathising with Ben’s attempts at confessing his feelings for Lucy. Surprisingly, he not only captivates us with his pristine voice – with an effortless command of the baritone notes – but also when he breaks with tradition and speaks his lines, as his desperation screams louder than it possibly could in song.

Just when you suspect he’s dodged a bullet, Mafi surprises us with spectacular vocals and an endearing performance. Remarkably engaging, there’s a hint of Disney princess to Mafi but with the vocal range of a tried and tested industry star. Softly and delicately Mafi climbs the bars as Menotti’s composition climbs to the piece’s exciting climax. Their harmonies bring The Telephone to a soppy, dramatic, and pleasant conclusion. 

This intimate film centring itself on the everyday occurrences of life and love makes for an engrossing short from Scottish Opera. Together, McGovern and Mafi prove that, despite the festival city falling silent this August, Edinburgh’s musical scene isn’t going to go quietly into the night – it’s just on hold for now.

Review originally published for The Wee Review

The Telephone is available to watch here

Faust – Royal Opera House

Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré

Score by Charles Gounod

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Navigating the human condition, to the eventual judgements of heaven’s light and hell’s fire, Faust holds no prisoners in its sumptuously decadent retelling of the infamous man who sold his soul for wealth, power, and vitally in this iteration, a woman. The Royal Opera House presents its 2019 recording of Faust as the latest in their online catalogue, revelling in Jules Barbier and Michel Carré’s colossal libretto set to the mesmeric and insane score, courtesy of Charles Gounod.

As a man driven in his lust for flesh, that of the young Marguerite, Michael Fabiano’s Faust comes across as more hollow than charismatic, with a tremendous amount of the character’s foppish tendencies reliant on sharing the stage with equally powerful singers. That is until Fabiano can perform efficacious arias in the latter half, though once more his strongest moments are when he is able to bounce off another, such as the breath-taking climax as Marguerite’s soul is delivered from damnation.

Irina Lungu’s descent into madness as Marguerite has an awkward midsection in Lungu’s range, where her capabilities lie in extremes. Wholesome and virtuous or broken and ‘tainted’, she seems incapable of a balanced transition between the two, and her performance, when at its peak, is as dramatically exaggerated as opera can achieve, but there’s rarely a soft moment during Faust.

It is extravagant, animated, and decadent and one would follow Erwin Schrott’s Méphistophélès into the gaping maws of hell, as he quite literally smashes every note. A trickster, Schrott playfully takes his stand on the Royal Opera House stage during a triumphantly blasphemous Le Veau d’Or. Schrott’s baritone, dipping into bass, is as Faustian in capabilities as to be expected, without stressing his range as he climbs or slithers down octaves.

A nightmarish danse macabre, the infusion of extensive dance routines could stretch the runtime of an already lavishly extravagant opera, but Faust avoids bloating, weaving the movement so seamlessly into the narrative, it enhances the surrounding chorus and themes. With the exceptional camerawork, moments become tangible, forcing the watcher into regions often unseen from across the stage. Grim, unearthly, and monstrous visions of splendour surround Faust as memories are roused from their grave as mere playthings for the ballerinas to tease and torment, all captured in tight angles, with focus on the grotesque make-up or facial expression. Dining on beauty, the pace of the orchestra matches wits with the structure of the movement, the two goading one another into bombastic chaos, never slipping in quality or ability – Un, Deux et Trois makes for an exceptional way to begin the final sequence.

The Royal Opera House Orchestra swoops amidst the styles and forms of genres, permeating burlesque showmanship, cacophonies of classical arias and even the occasional metal ripples to reinforce Faust’s feckless self-determination. Led by Dan Ettinger, the sharper notes from the woodwind sections are well taut among the soft scurries from the orchestra pit.

Luxuriantly embracing its shadowy nature, Faust too often turns its sights towards dancing with the devil – though who can blame them?

Review originally published for Reviews Hub:

Faust is Available to stream here

La bohème – The Royal Opera House

Music: Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

Director: Richard Jones

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A painter, a scholar, a musician, and a poet convene in their ramshackle abode – late on rent, low on funds, but bountiful in spirit(s). Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème is one of the artform’s most regularly performed pieces, and a staple of Italian opera repertories. The tale of a lowly seamstress and her gaggle of bohemian chums is the grounds for melodrama at its most pungent. When Rodolfo, a penniless poet encounters the seamstress, Mimi, love blossoms; well, it is an opera after all.

For a limited time, The Royal Opera House has made its recording of La bohème free. Directed by Richard Jones, this version of Puccini’s timeless escapade charters love in a crowded city, and the descent into heartache that follows. Our lead tenors and baritones, these four bohemians, provide exemplary vocals, with the over-the-top scene-chewing one would expect. Balancing control of their powerful voices, while equally harmonizing is a necessity that Michael Fabiano, Mariusz Kwiecień, Luca Tittoto and Florian Sempey achieve.

Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s libretto continues to be one of opera’s signature pieces, infusing derivative humour with genuine emotion, courtesy of love interests Mimi and Musetta, arguably the muses for the men. But figuratively they also hold genuine sway and power, particularly at the masterful hands of Simona Mihai’s Musetta, who captures Giacosa and Illica’s ludicrous sense of absurdist comedy. Her performance of Quando me’n vo’, miserably failing to capture Marcello’s eye, is a stand-out routine, accentuated by the allure of her crimson dress, set against the clinical ‘grandeur’ of a snow-white cafe.

The ridiculous exuberance of the first act captures the integral ‘feel’ of La bohème, as the four bohemians dine, and outwit their landlord, but Stewart Laing’s design is a piece of staggering scale come the market-place and café of Act two. The size of the crowd aids, not only vocally as an ever-present backing, but also to convey the magnitude of the shops as Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting grows from soft ambers into a sterile white.

What couldn’t be more different than the opulence of Act Two, is the prolonged silence of the third Act’s opening, as a chill and foreboding emanate. The levity and rapscallion nature of the production’s first half ebbs into a solemn note. Away from the brilliance of looming scale, Laing’s set design shrinks in on itself, positioning our singers into the cold outdoors, as the composition gradually weighs down emotionally, the promise of one last winter’s love.

This staying power of Puccini’s Opera is the sword the Royal Opera House falls upon. As a production of La bohème, there is little to fault, but there’s nothing which stamps a uniqueness for Royal Opera. If anything, its dedication to extravagance leads to a clash of score, action, and performance. Opera is dramatic, but even this has limitations. The filming is sporadic, unsure of where to focus with such bold characters and rich melodrama, and no matter where the camera is pointing something will be missed.

Perhaps the most significant talent, control and execution are demonstrated by Antonio Pappano, for conducting the Royal Court House Orchestra: an invigorating interpretation of Puccini’s classic. La bohème will survive as a core production for opera, and while change is unnecessary or unwelcomed, the Royal Opera House’s production plays it safe, relying on the audience’s already established charm for the libretto, and luckily it has the performers to carry it off.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub:

Available to stream here until 17 July 2020