mon 25/03/2019

Robin Hood, The Opera Story, CLF Café review - folk hero re-imagined as Tory villain | reviews, news & interviews

Robin Hood, The Opera Story, CLF Café review - folk hero re-imagined as Tory villain

Robin Hood, The Opera Story, CLF Café review - folk hero re-imagined as Tory villain

The plot is over-stuffed, but this new opera has some riveting moments

Nicholas Merryweather as Robin Hood and William Barter-Sheppard as The Boy© Robert Workman

What’s the one thing everyone knows about Robin Hood? That he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. So it was quite a brave decision to re-cast Robin as a rapacious Tory shires MP, doing his best to stop the poor becoming rich. At least, I think that was what happened: in much of the story is opaque, even having read the synopsis carefully. But this new new opera by composer Dani Howard has some striking passages, both of excellent singing and beautiful scoring.

The Opera Story is a young company in only its third season, but already onto its third new piece. It doesn’t lack ambition: the cast is six-strong, there is a 10-piece band, and with the production shifting downstairs to a different room for the second half, two whole sets and lighting rigs. The venue, the CLF Café, is a vibrant community space in Peckham in east London, where the opera takes place over two floors.

Following the success of their first two fairytale-based operas, The Opera Story turned to the greatest of all English folk-heroes, in a modernised version with music by Dani Howard and libretto by Zoë Palmer and Rebecca Hurst. (The all-female creative team extends to director Polly Graham, designer April Dalton, lighting designer Claire Childs and the excellent conductor Berrak Dyer.)

The updating of the story involves Robin Hood (Nicholas Merryweather) running a laddish London drinking-den, leading a secretive male hunting group “The Merry Men” all while being MP and Lord of the Greenwood, a forest under threat from an urban development. This development, Boom Town, is the brainchild of Joanna (Lorna Anderson), suited and sometimes moustachioed, whose son has gone missing. Robin Hood is also haunted by the recollection of a boy he accidentally killed while out hunting. No surprises for guessing that these two children are one and the same, and that the denouement is this discovery.

It has to be said the plot is as over-stuffed as the taxidermy in Robin’s club, with contemporary issues of housing development, male privilege, corrupt politicians and more besides squeezed into just 85 minutes of action. It needed to do less, as the first half in particular felt a bit bewildering. But the libretto was very singable, in particular the well-worked dramatic moment that ended the first half, with Joanna shrieking “Where is my son?” Also effective was her meditation at the beginning of the second half: “No golden sun, no stars, no moon. No path, no river, no way home. My son is gone”, beautifully sung by Lorna Anderson and magically scored for string harmonics and bowed vibraphone.Sîan Cameron as MarianThe consequence of the first half being so plot-heavy is that the music is constantly on the move, with little time for reflection and that old opera staple, aria. Although the music propels things along, the relief is palpable when Robin’s sister and eco-campaigner Marian (Sîan Cameron, pictured above by Robert Workman) enters for a shimmering set-piece “It’s that greening time of year”.

By contrast, the second half consists almost entirely of reflection, as the characters’ actions lead to crisis, with Robin’s killing of the boy played out in flashback, watched by his mother. (The Boy was played by William Barter-Sheppard with poise and understatement, and it was a shame he wasn’t given more than a handful of lines to sing.) The best musical moments are in the second half. Howard’s music is tonal and consonant (reminiscent of Jonathan Dove) and, in some parts of the first half, a bit under-characterised. But in the second she finds her feet with some beautifully-wrought orchestration, crunchier harmony and a fabulous choral quintet at the end.

It was notable in that passage that the singers – uniformly good – were also well blended, in a way that is perhaps more common in choral music than opera. Nicholas Merryweather made the blustering Robin’s descent into self-knowledge very affecting, and Sîan Cameron’s Marian had a lovely shiny vocal tone. The voices, also including the energetic Oliver Brignall and Cliff Zammit Stevens, were also well-suited to the venue, which accommodated a (full) audience of about 70, neither over nor under-powered.

For all my reservations about the story, this was an admirable staging of a new opera, and The Opera Story co-founders Manuel Fajardo and Hamish Mackay deserve congratulations on the success of their project. The relative lavishness of the production speaks to their skill in raising funds, and in giving the opportunity to a young composer to write her first opera they may have launched a major career.

@bernardlhughes

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