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Independent Opera at The Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadlers Wells, London EC1
15 November 2007

The Sofa

Prince Dominic – Nicholas Sharratt
Monique – Sarah Tynan
Edward – George von Bergen
Dominic’s Grandmother – Josephine Thorpe
Lucille – Alinka Kozari
Laura – Anna Leese
Yolande – Patricia Orr
A Suitor – Patrick Ashcroft

The Departure
Julia – Louise Pole
Mark – Hakan Vramsmo
Ensemble:  Samuel Boden, Michelle Daly, Jassy Husk, Simon Lobelson, Benedict Nelson, Tom Oldham, Kate Symonds-Joy, David Webb

Dominic Wheeler – Conductor
Alessandro Talevi – Director
Madeleine Boyd – Set Design
Ryszard Andrzejewski – Costume Design
Matthew Haskins – Lighting

Elizabeth Maconchy’s birth centenary year has awakened new interest in her music, and particular her vocal writings.   It fell to the enterprising Independent Opera Company, now in its third season, to present a double bill of her operas which, with demand vastly outstripping the capacity of three performances at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, has certainly been the hottest ticket in town this week.

The Sofa was premiered in 1959 and The Departure in 1962, and it is worth sparing a moment to consider the literary scene around that time.    
This was the era of works such as Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar  and the early novels of Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover  was finally published in the UK in 1960 sparking off a hotly contested court action, and attitudes towards explicit sexual portrayal were clearly loosening. Nonetheless the French farce action of The Sofa would certainly have surprised audiences of the day, but with skilful direction, appears not to have shocked them. 

In today’s more openly permissive society, director Alessandro Talevi clearly felt that a far greater degree of animation was required to re-create the atmosphere of a wild 1950’s party.   I don’t know how many props were involved, but an extensive display of period bric-a-brac and countless bottles and glasses (the aluminium beer cans were clearly out of place) filled every available inch, and partygoers indulged in non-stop revelry even when not directly involved in the action.   I would have preferred a little less, as it tended to distracted from the gorgeously bubbly score, fizzing with invention, and parodying joyously from wide ranging musical sources.

Maconchy wrote so well for voice, and her work was done full justice by seriously good singing from all the cast. I have listed the members of the Ensemble since they took a full part in both singing and acting, and the extended chorus “Dominic is missing” was one of the most impressive pieces of singing and staging of the evening. 

All the principals gave of their outmost.  Josephine Thorpe as the witchlike grandmother faced the toughest vocal challenge, spitting out her incantations with precise venom.  Alinka Kozari, Anna Leese and Patricia Orr produced a blend of voices of considerable beauty whilst romping drunkenly on the sofa – and Nicholas Sharratt, silenced for much of the time by his transmogrification, used every gesture and expression to compensate.  Sarah Tynan (pictured with Nicholas Sharrat) displayed all her wiles as the flighty Monique, and  George von Bergen was suitably Sloaney as the blood-sport crazy Englishman. 

An extended interval allowed the stage to be re-set and the audience to clear their minds a little for relative tranquillity of The Departure. It’s a much darker hued piece, with richly harmonic orchestral textures complemented by an offstage chorus. Louise Poole, as the wife who slowly realises she is dead, has an immense emotional journey to make as well as negotiating a vocal score of exceptionally wide range. Hakan Vramso, as her bereaved husband, brought appropriately weighty poignancy, and their duet as they relived happier memories was heart rending.  

The orchestral playing was excellent throughout, with Dominic Wheeler in lively control, and mention should also be made of Natalie Murray who had obviously done sterling work as Vocal Coach and Assistant Conductor.

Serena Fenwick

This event polarised critical responses:
Fiona Maddox in The Evening Standard
Andrew Clements in
The Guardian
and Simon Thomas in music omh: - - surtitles were badly needed during The Sofa, in part due to Maconchy's dense writing but also because of a lack of attention to diction from most of the cast. Dominic Wheeler conducted his 15-piece band with great relish but could have shown greater awareness of the need for balance in so small a venue, at times swamping the singers and adding to the audibility problem.

And finally, see too

Underrated women of note in Financial Times 15 December 2007 (article about this production)

2. Maconchy Centenary concert at GSMD [Editor]

Photo credit: Robbie Jack