OperaUpClose at the Kings Head are expanding their reaches further into new writing with their Flourish writing competition, through which Polish composer Katarzyna Brochocka’s Young Wife was discovered. The one act one-woman piece is based on a novel by Polish writer Gabriela Zapolska (1857-1921), The Memoirs Of A Young Wife, which depicts the first year in a young girl’s marriage through diary form.
Brochocka hopes the piece has relevance to a modern audience. Musically, at least, the composer has combined classical forms and dances with discordant modernism. Structured as an ongoing monologue, the music is more akin to a lengthy recitative than traditional aria, the music changing with each new diary entry and change of mood from distracted pointillism to dreamlike reverie and excited melisma. As such, with few obvious melodic themes, the music flows like a stream of consciousness, albeit with lengthy transitions between each diary entry that represent the passing of time with relentless chromaticism. It’s in these sections that Brochocka, accompanying on piano, offers a glittering display of keyboard technique. Whilst a more colourful orchestration could enhance the changes of mood, the single piano mirrors the single voice of the soprano performance.
And Maud Millar presents a transfixing depiction of the young wife (the role is dual cast with Sarah Minns). Vocally she matches the piano with a varied emotional range, from piercing, joyous high notes to tenderly soft lyricism; her subtle acting, meanwhile, offers a genuine portrayal of an innocent and naïve young woman. With minimal staging and lighting, the production feels more like a recital piece than true opera, but that is not to diminish the intrigue of the score nor the quality of Millar’s performance.
The company are best known, however, for mixing things up with their opera productions and their Dido and Aeneas - forming the second part of this operatic double bill - is no exception. Director Valentina Ceschi offers an odd clash of low-brow modern America and traditional high-brow English culture as she transports the audience to ‘Carthage High’. Here, Dido becomes a lovable prom queen and Aeneas quarter-back of the Trojans, accompanied by a small ensemble of pom-pom wielding cheerleaders who take selfies, rave to Katy Perry and sing country songs. The cast commit wholeheartedly to the concept (even throwing in a Miley Cyrus reference at one point), which certainly makes for creativity during the dances that divide the acts – but to what end? Is there a purpose to the setting beyond idiosyncrasy and provocation? The result is Greek tragedy meets Mean Girls that may seem relevant to a younger audience, but the plot becomes more comedic bitchy melodrama than serious opera. Purists will not be happy.
Regardless of the setting, the singing is exceptional – from Ian Beadle’s strapping Aeneas, to James Hall’s strong countertenor voice as Zach, Eleanor Ross’ pure Belinda and Phillipa Thomas as the sour Britney. As Dido, Zarah Hible offers a mature performance with a rich timbre; her rendition of the famous When I Am Laid In Earth is beautifully sung, whilst having her slit her wrists with her own tiara is a clever touch. It’s a shame, though, that the ensemble of musicians suffer multiple tuning issues.
As a whole, then, this double bill sums up what OperaUpClose is all about – a young and daring opera company not afraid to take a risk on new work or unusual staging. For better or worse, the London opera scene would be far duller without them.
Watch: The double bill runs until the 29th March.