Theatron Novum’s production of Purcell’s The Prophetess is unlike most other operas. Directed by Dionysios Kyropoulos, it features a new, specially commissioned libretto by Leo Mercer, and orchestra conducted by Matthew Reese, a storyline that leaps ably between modern-day London and Ancient Rome, imaginative staging, and a striking interpretation of old and new. The plot contains love and death, stalwart themes of the art, but the importance of love and the pitfalls of pride take The Prophetess to a heartwarming conclusion.
When booking a ticket to a 17th century dramatic opera like The Prophetess, a stark, black and white stage with stencilled skyscrapers and other depictions of modern life and a cast clothed in contemporary costume, is not, it is fair to say, what immediately springs to mind. I was therefore curious to see how the two would work together, and I was not disappointed, in large part due to the new libretto. Mercer’s verse frames the original storyline around the character of Delphine (Jasmine White), who, bored and anxious on her daily commute to work, reads and begins to narrate the tale in Purcell’s opera. Assumptions are turned on their heads. London above ground becomes a dull, lifeless place, whereas the London Underground, as the gateway between the present and the exciting past, becomes an underworld of the imagination. The verse is emotive and full of imagery, producing a successful and inventive reworking.
This is an experienced cast, and it shows. Jasmine White’s Delphine is an animated narrator, sensitively expressing the emotions of the other characters through speech whilst the rest of the cast perform in mime, an extremely tricky technique to pull off. The cast succeed in this, with only one or two minor instances within the whole performance that showed anything less than complete harmony. Indeed, Drusilla (Betty Makharinsky) and Delphine’s scene after Drusilla has been jilted by Dioclesian (Danny Scarponi) was a particular highlight, heart-wrenchingly combining mime, narration and song. Danny Scarponi’s Dioclesian is very physically expressive even in a performance which makes liberal use of physical theatre techniques, and successfully evokes sympathy and admiration from the audience as he evolves from egotistical, ambition-wracked pursuer of the throne to humble, loving husband. Charinus’s (Raphaël Millière) ‘rats and bowtie’ monologue was one of many and unexpected ways in which this opera makes the audience question received wisdom about ambition, the daily grind, and human kindness, as well as playing with notions of time and place. Ben Christopher and Johanna Harrison as Maximinian and Aurelia embodied the idea of living for love, with their deceptively simple final duet being particularly eloquent and engaging.
The Prophetess’s greatest strengths lie in its ensemble scenes and songs, when the actor-singers really show what they are made of, and the level of detail in the interlocking of old and modern motifs. The rendition of ‘God of Wine’ by the whole cast was another highlight, garnering both well-deserved laughter and applause from the audience: characters in contemporary costume danced 17th century dances as well as showing off drunken disco moves to the sound of a harpsichord. The elements of physical theatre were almost flawlessly integrated, and especially well handled in the transitioning between scenes. Only at one or two moments might the production have benefitted from a little more restraint on this front.
Any expectations about what opera is, and about what opera can and should do, will be completely blown out of the water by this production. The Prophetess is the imaginative, innovative result of tradition and modernity interlocking to form a virtually seamless opera.