S&H OperaReview

Jonathan Dove/Nick Dear The Palace in the Sky conducted by Stuart Stratford, with Robert Tear, Keel Watson (Nicholas Folwell), Toby Stafford-Allen, Sally June Gain, Diana Moore, Gavin Spokes, Collegium Musicum, CYM Hackney Saturday Music Centre Choir, Percussion Ensemble and players/Simon Foxley, Hackney Youth Jazz Orchestra; Cambridge Heath Salvation Army Band, Alevi Saz Ensemble, Hackney Youth Steel Orchestra, The Hoxton Singers & Old Spice, a multitude of children and adult residents of Hackney. Hackney Empire 5 November 00

If there has ever been a better and more inspiriting Community Opera it was probably also by Jonathan Dove.[left] If there has been a better community participation project for the Millennium, I haven't heard about it. This was a magnificent achievement, taking place in London's poorest and overspent Borough, now riven with rioting because of further proposed cuts in services. No better way could be imagined to demonstrate the vitality and creativity of its people, and their capacity to work together to a common goal.

The Hackney Empire is a wonderful, precious old Victorian Theatre, lavishly decorated in a style rarely now to be found and it was exploited for this occasion, with participants right up to the roof. The short run was sold out and the atmosphere was electric. The list above represents only a portion of the numerous contributors to its success over a four year preparation, culminating on Guy Fawkes weekend; forgiveness is craved from those whose names have necessarily been omitted.

The story was developed in workshops and Nick Dear has fashioned a libretto to appeal to young and old alike, with powerful local resonances. Many social themes are tapped, and the professional singers and musicians help to give people who have never seen one before, especially schoolchildren, a real flavour of opera. Many of those will come back, and others may want to enter the performing arts as a consequence of this rich experience. ENO and its Baylis Programme staff headed a huge list of contributors and facilitators.

Jonathan Dove has tapped the idiom for which he is well known (e.g. in Flight for Glyndebourne). Obviously it derives from John Adams, but he has made it his own and it serves these needs well, without any cop-out for more sophisticated listeners. It is very clever, and supports perfectly a text often funny and at other times moving. Robert Tear was the very persona of a seedy retired London gangster. Keel Watson (on stage but, because of a throat infection, covered vocally by Nicholas Folwell for the last performance) is a formidable bass admired recently in Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso. As Robert Tear's rival for control of the patch, he was a chilling nouveau-riche tycoon, who exploited his power sexually; the trilling roulades of Sally June Gain after a shopping spree characterised deliciously her role as his opera-singer mistress.. His entourage showed the trappings of probably ill-gotten wealth, and its come-uppance. All the lead soloists had thoroughly rewarding parts to sing and act. The staging, with high steel structures representing the growing tower block, was breathtaking, as was the lighting.

Robert Tear

Sally June Gain

The steel band and Turkish lutes contributed to emphasise vividly the multi-national society that is Hackney at the turn of the Millennium, and there was real music for the Salvation Army band to tackle, a challenge they enjoyed. The Street Kids sang out lustily, as children never did sing in my young days. Watching construction site workers is a recognised urban pleasure, and the teams of demolition workers, masons, crane-drivers, iron-workers, pipe-fitters, ventilators, plumbers, carpenters, steeplejacks and caterers - their hard hats colour coded, made a delightful picture, superbly choreographed and trained by Kay Shepherd, under over-all direction by Jo Davies. There was plenty to do for youngsters of 5 and senior citizens alike; the dancing was stupendous, the first act ending with the atmosphere of the Notting Hill Carnival.

With a wonderful La Boheme (Leoncavallo) opening at the Coliseum, this was a great week for ENO. The aspirations of The Palace in the Sky were as high as the tower as was planned to rise; this opera must not be allowed to disappear after just three performances!

Peter Grahame Woolf

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