Monday, 4 April 2016

HONESTLY! 3 OPERAS, 1 HOUR / L'arietta / Review

10 Square, Orchard Central
Saturday (2 April 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 April 2016 with the title "Tapestry of life revealed in mini operas".

Say hello to L'arietta, Singapore's newest opera company. L'arietta, which means “little song” in Italian, was formed by local tenor Reuben Lai and Japanese soprano Akiko Otao to promote the niche genre of chamber opera. Both profess that opera is relevant to today's cultures and mores even in its most diminutive form, far removed from the grand spectacles of Wagner and Verdi. Its debut production showcased three such mini-operas in a single sitting, each refreshingly different and moving in their own way.

British composer Joseph Horovitz's The Gentleman's Island was a dark comedy about two stuffy Englishmen stranded on a desert island. They are initially distant because they have not been previously introduced, but readily bond when they know of a mutual friend Robinson. Jameson Soh's eloquent and effective stage direction had the gentleman marooned on separate wooden blocks but joined by a physical and metaphorical umbilical cord.

Tenor Lai and baritone Brent Allcock were excellent in their characterisations of self-consciousness and overriding pride. Their clear dulcet tones meant that the audience could catch their every single word and nuance. Even when rescue arrives in the form of Robinson, they reject him because he comes in a convict ship. The folly of death by pride is their ultimate comeuppance.

The second opera was Singaporean Chen Zhangyi's Window Shopping, about diametrically opposing reactions of two women when they enter a high-end shoe shop. Mezzo-soprano Angela Hodgins' older lady sings of regret and soured memories while soprano Otao's young waif is ecstatic on the choice of heels available to her.

Chen's score cleverly used a ground bass, which represented plodding footsteps people make when they go shopping, also symbolic of the trudges in life itself. While Hodgins' part was elegiac, Otao's was whimsical and jazzy. Ultimately both come to the realisation that life was not about acquiring assets (such as new shoes replacing old ones) but how to look after them.

The final opera brought back all four singers in Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge. What lurks in the minds of those who pit their wits in a game of small stakes? The scenario of failed marriages and dysfunctional characters revealing their innermost desires and fears were neatly encapsulated in four ariettas.

Angela longs for a hat of peacock feathers, while Reuben lusts after an extramarital affair. Akiko frets on her mother's frail health, and Brent craves for power and riches. Such is the flawed fabric and tapestry of life, where each individual has to come to terms with his or her own foibles and realities.

Accompanying this production was young pianist Wayne Teo, who more than coped with the disparate styles and complexities thrown at him. That the filled-to-capacity audience, with many children in attendance, sat in quiet and rapt attention throughout was ample testimony to the performers.

Clock watchers might like to note the durations of each opera: 28 minutes (Horovitz) + 21 minutes (Chen) + 10 minutes (Barber) = 59 minutes. Three operas in one hour? Mission accomplished.    

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