When Howard Mayer Brown attempts the difficult task of defining opera in his article for the The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, there is one word that saturates his entry: drama. He asserts that any study of the genre worth the paper it’s written on should take into account the different facets of operatic works – their music, their drama, their spectacle – and it can be intuitively assumed from this that these facets must receive equal attention in performance. In fact, I feel that I am rather stating the obvious here, in a roundabout way – opera is, and should be, as dramatic as it is musical. New Chamber Opera’s deeply satirical double bill featuring Stravinsky’s Renard and Walton’s The Bear promised a lot on both fronts, both operas sparkling with dramatic and musical humour. The intimate setting of New College ante-chapel, with a softly-lit performance area of no more than a few square metres, provided a perfectly intimate setting for New Chamber Opera’s performance of this diptych, setting the scene for an arresting performance.
What was eventually offered was an evening of undoubtedly exceptional music making. The small orchestra and its musical director Chloe Rooke provided a virtually flawless accompaniment throughout both operas. The attention to detail, so important to the music of these two composers, was impressively professional, the players drawing out the visceral contrasts in the scores, demonstrating mature expressivity and the confidence to play with real grit when the music required it. Vocally, the quality was slightly more variable. In Renard Alexander Gebhard stood out, his tenor voice replete with appropriately biting coarseness. Unfortunately the performances of the other three vocalists came across as comparatively weak, clearly finding it difficult to shed their polite choral scholar tones and take these demanding roles by the scruff of the neck. The performance of The Bear benefited greatly from the presence of the impressive voices of Daniel Tate and Johanna Harrison, who delivered the vocal highlights of the evening. It was impossible not to enjoy the ease with which Harrison skipped across her wide vocal range, maintaining a mature tone, and the richness of Tate’s voice was nothing short of spectacular.
Considering the high musical standard, it was not only disappointing, but frankly frustrating that the dramatic element fell short. It started well, with the four singers starring in Renard playfully marching their way out of the darkness of the nave into the light, accompanied by the raucous sound of a whistle. It soon became clear, however, that this was not a production that was maximising for theatrical value. One cast member spent the majority of the opera standing on a small bright red stepladder (presumably symbolising a tree), resembling an apathetic teenager more than their particular character. The Fox’s attempts to trick and catch the Cock were rather tame for a ‘vicious moralising tale’ (as the programme calls the opera), amounting to nothing more than a feeble pull on a feather boa. The killing of the Fox was equally underwhelming, more of a puerile scuffle than a violent attack, and the whole opera was rendered somewhat limp as a result.
The Bear was an improvement, and Harrison’s thoughtful portrayal of the widow Madam Popova demonstrated a characterful use of her delightful voice, contrasting woe with a nimble, dry quality that conveyed the sharp-tongued lines of the libretto well. Tate’s vocal talents were not matched by his grasp of drama, however, and seemed to engage more with the floor than the audience. Frederick Crowley, meanwhile, could have made more of the dry comedic opportunities that the role of Luka (Madam Popova’s servant) provided.
It was not the singers’ acting abilities that were the greatest source of vexation, but rather the direction. Any director who decides that singers should spend half the performance facing away from the majority of the audience, not only causing issues with vocal projection but also resulting in my spending half the evening staring at the back of heads, is a brave one. Even the chair used in The Bear was purposefully placed so that it was facing in this direction. The rear of a human head is not, to use Mayer Brown’s term, a ‘spectacular’ sight. This proves a fact of which most of us are already aware – those all-important facial expressions that actors spend much time perfecting are not possible without a face. It was therefore no surprise that laughs were not forthcoming. Considering the quality of the musical aspect of the evening, I was left feeling like I would rather have watched a concert performance of the same repertoire, a disappointment considering these operas could have offered such dramatic and comedic delights.