views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Ugly Duck
19th March 2015

★★★★☆

William Johnston Davies and Marcin Gesla as Pedrillo and Osmin

Photography © Richard Lakos

Pining after her long-distance lover Belmonte (Paul Hopwood), Konstanze (Eve Daniell) books herself in for a hammam cum boot camp, alongside her trusted secretary Blonde (Emily Phillips). After all, a bit of girly time, some exercise - she's bound to look better and feel better too. Blonde's boyfriend, Pedrillo (William Johnston Davies) is hoping to tag along and spend some quality time with his missus, but he isn't allowed to check in as a guest given it's a female-only retreat, so he signs up for a working holiday in the same venue. Not all the facilities are as expected - it's less group Zumba and more doing the ironing - but apart from that, it's no so bad. Well, until the spa manager Osmin (Marcin Gesla), refuses to let any of them leave. His boss, Pasha Selim, has taken rather a shining to Konstanze.

Although Die Entführung aus dem Serail is meant to be reasonably light-hearted, it's really about two women who are kidnapped and sold into a Turkish harem. This is completely glossed over in Darren Royston's take on the opera, with Konstanze and Blonde choosing to go to Turkey and various comedic misunderstandings resulting in hilarity. Whilst the purists will find this a step too far, in stripping the original work of the human trafficking aspect, Royston enables us to more easily find pleasure in the music. There are no complicated politics or tangled affairs of the heart in this show: we have two couples who are madly in love with each other and a funny henchman who - spoiler alert - doesn't successfully spoil a thing. You could argue it's been oversimplified, but the result is a easy to follow story which is also very easy to like. Sometimes, it's about the simply pleasures.

I've previously seen this company tackle some challenging operas in impossibly tiny spaces, but Ugly Duck (which you may know as 47/49 Tanner Street or "Dragon's Den" depending on how far back your memory stretches!) is really quite roomy. What this means is there's a fabulous echo, which amplifies each singer's power. The performance starts almost as a silent movie, with skilled accompaniment from Elizabeth Challenger on keys as Daniell and Phillips merrily flounce about on stage getting ready for "beauty booty camp" to some rather tongue-in-cheek subtitles. By the time the singers actually open their mouths, you've been so distracted by the comedy setup by Royston that you've almost forgotten what you're really there for, and you're disarmed by the sheer beauty of their impressive vocals. For me, the goosebumps come straight away: it's down to that gorgeous echo. It really adds that extra intensity.

One of Pop-up Opera's stops on the tour

Photography © Robert Anderson

I generally avoid German opera, given it's one of the modern European languages I'm least comfortable with, but as usual, Pop-up Opera get around the language barrier with some humorous subtitling. Maybe it's my own frustration with not being fluent in this particular language anymore, and not being able to interpret the actual lyrics as sung and compare them to the projected faux translations, but it felt like there were some slightly overlong gaps with lots of singing and little explanation for the poor non-German language speakers like me. This isn't something I noticed in previous productions Così fan tutte and Le Docteur Miracle, but admittedly, Mozart seems a more tricky devil to work with. There's less interaction with the audience too, with the company feeling slightly more restrained this time in their usual zaniness.

The musical direction by Berrak Dyer is unsurprisingly perfect, and Royston's stage work is a lot of fun. Ugly Duck wasn't originally a planned stop on this tour, and you can sense Royston was perhaps expecting something smaller to work with, but it all adds to the undeniably gleeful feeling of 'this just shouldn't be happening here'. When you find yourself at a Pop-up Opera production, you feel like a kid in a candy shop left unattended, and just can't help but experience an overwhelming sense of joy at being let in on what I hope is fast turning into one of London's worst-kept secrets. Opera in a cafe? A small room above a pub? The Den? Opera is traditionally meant to take place in grand old purpose-built structures - it's meant to be stuffy, imposing and well, Not For Us. Except Pop-up Opera reject that idea, and they bring the most inaccessible of art forms to the everyman. If the thought of going to the opera has always seemed more like a punishment, get ready for a complete change of heart. Trust me, this company will make a culture vulture of you yet.

It's another intimate staging - at times I had to duck to avoid being whacked in the face by Belmonte's swishy Zorro-esque cape, and I ended up guarding the cleaning equipment Pedrillo enthusiastically offloaded. If you were to reach out, you could touch the singers - there may be enough space to spread out, but they do want to get up close and personal. You can hear a gorgeous aria on the radio, or far away on a large stage, but it's not until it's performed live, only inches away, that you truly appreciate the staggering talent involved. Daniell in particular has some thoroughly complicated lyrics and high notes to hit, and yet her delivery is effortlessly beautiful. This is a company which not only has a clear vision of what it wants to do, but the skills to back that up.

You don't have to know anything about Mozart to enjoy Die Entführung - a cursory knowledge of Tinder and Super Mario might actually be more helpful. The adaptation may be just that bit too irreverent for some, but Pop-up Opera are clearly passionate about what they do, and are trying to make that as inclusive as possible. For me, losing a few details in translation doesn't really matter: this is a thoroughly captivating, skilful and fun production.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail opened on 3rd March and runs until 1st May. Planned London dates include: 26th March (Dalston Department Store Warehouse), 12th April (Asylum Chapel, Peckham), 14th April (Stour Space) and 16th to 17th April 2015 (Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft).

Nearest tube station: London Bridge (Northern, Jubilee)



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