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Elizabeth Maconchy,  The Sofa, The Departure:  Independent Opera Company, Dominic Wheeler (conductor) Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, 13.11.2007 (AO)

Nicholas Sharratt (Prince Dominic), Sarah Tynan, (Monica), George von Bergen (Edward), Grandmorther (Josephine Thorpe) Louise Poole (Julia), Håkan Vramsmo (Mark), Alessandro Talevi (director)

Independent Opera Company is a fledgling opera company that has few resources other than those that really count : enthusiasm, imagination and a love for opera.  In this cynical world, such values mean more than ever, I think, which is why I enjoy their productions so much.

They are an adventuresome company, and this time they’ve chosen the operas of Elisabeth Maconchy.  Her daughter, the composer, Nicola Le Fanu has written an informative tribute for MusicWeb about the composer which is worth reading because it places Maconchy in context. Perhaps one of the reasons she’s been neglected is because her music is highly individual and  doesn’t fit comfortable pigeonholes. Despite her lifelong friendship with Ralph and Ursula Vaughan Williams, her music shows little of the older composer’s influence.  Her passions were European, and modern and  her Piano Concerto was premiered by Erwin Schulhoff.  One wonders how she might have developed had Nazism and war not obliterated the world towards which she might have gravitated but  it’s fortunate that, in this year of her centenary, Independent Opera has brought two of her short operas back into circulation.

Neither The Sofa (1957) nor The Departure (1961) have dated. Indeed, The Sofa is a so lively that the youthful cast – all under 35 – revel in its quirky modernity. The set is a gorgeous mix of 1950’s kitsch and retro chic – completely in tune with current tastes in post modern irony.  The costumes, make-up and hairdos are brilliant – the Grandmother is a nightmare in shocking pink, and the girlfriend has a helmet-like Amy Winehouse black beehive, adding another level of meaning to the plot.

The hero is a dissolute young Prince called Dominic, whose grandmother is a witch who can do magic spells. Don’t ask me why – Ursula Vaughan Williams wrote the libretto, based on a French story, apparently at her husband’s suggestion. Despite being a witch, Grandmother wants Prince Dominic to settle down and be respectable so (naturally!) she turns him into a leatherette sofa. The spell will only be broken when someone has sex on it.  It’s hardly a serious curse, given the fact that all Dominic’s friends are obsessed with sex in multiple forms.  This leads to many comic gags which enliven the action.  Three girls sit down, talking about men. Prince-as-sofa is overcome, his head popping up between the cushions. His hands (or rather two different stagehand’s hands) reach out to paw the girls who of course don’t know he’s there. Since they’re singing a parody of the Rhinemaiden’s song, it’s hilarious.

Throughout the work, there are allusions to Bizet, Puccini, to Gilbert and Sullivan  and to the drearier aspects of music popular in Maconchy’s time.  The references fly fast so fleetingly that you have to be quick to get them, but that's just part of the fun : this is  irreverent, irrepressible anarchy, a parody of musical convention as well of the solid bourgeois respectability that the sofa symbolises.  It works because the performance captures the turbulent pace so well; rhe ensemble pieces are particularly well choreographed, and the “Champagne Cantata” is witty indeed, more so than many in the audience might realise.  The singers are young, so they can’t be expected to turn in virtuoso performances, but they all act with gusto. Each one is thoughtfully characterised and the tall baritone in drag is delicious!

The Departure is darker. A woman can’t understand why, when her husband enters, that he can’t see her.  What she doesn’t realise is that she’s dead.  Gradually the two voices meld together melodically.  It’s an effective way of using music to make us realise that the pair can only “feel” each other’s presence. With only two performers, there was more emphasis on singing here, but Poole and Vramsmo were convincing and Vramsmo has impressed me several times already.  Less appealing was Maconchy’s use of a heavenly choir singing in Latin, towards which the dead woman eventually heads -  not a very imaginative resolution of what could have been an interesting situation.  Perhaps it’s an ironic Maconchy comment on Elgar, Vaughan Williams et al, but I don’t think so.  Nonetheless, it was well produced: because there’s no room in the cramped Lillian Baylis Theatre for an orchestra pit, the players were  half-hidden behind a screen like a huge Venetian blind, and the “choir” stood half-visible on the platform above.  This moderated the work's rather too facile use of choir, making it a little less literal.

As itb happens,  the intelligent use of space and stagecraft is something at which Independent Opera excels.  In November 2006 they mounted an ambitious production of Handel’s
Orlando in this same theatre, turning its limitations to advantage.  The seats rise steeply, barely a metre from the platform, and the stage is too shallow for much backstage support. Yet, taking the cue from Handel himself, Alessandro Talevi created “theatre in the round”, so the singers popped up unexpectedly in all parts of the hall, just as they do in the narrative.  The orchestra was visble, surrounded by a flat ellipse on which the singers could move, either  standing conventionally, or perched vertiginously on the edge. It was brilliant, because it blended art and artifice, reality and magic. Extremely intelligent use of lights, shadows and projected silhouettes added to the aura of mystery. This was a brilliant realisation of the fundamental spirit of Handel’s magical world, where gods and human swap roles, and myth merges into life. This company may be cash poor but it’s rich in creative flair.

Maconchy certainly isn’t Handel, however entertaining she may be, and she’ll probably be remembered for her chamber music rather than these operas.  But all the more credit to Independent Opera for being adventurous and giving audiences a chance to start them exploring further.  The programme notes were  helpful and well written, well above the average bland cliché so often encountered elsewhere.


One of Alessandro Talevi’s strengths is that he can inspire people; a rare gift and  to hear these young singers perform with such enthusiasm is a joy in itself.  This performance was sold out, which is obviously a good thing, but it’s what the company is doing to nurture creative talent that’s really going to pay off in the long term.  At the end, most of the female singers received bouquets, not just the principals.  This was a small gesture, but touching and very human.  Someone at Independent Opera knows how to appreciate people ! 

Anne Ozorio

 The Indpendent Opera web site is Here


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