Review of Blackheath Halls Community Opera 2012 by Nick Breckenfield, Classical Source
Photograph by Alex Brenner
Last year's Blackheath Community Opera, Eugene Onegin, ended at a ball (not in St Petersburg, but - true to its American transmogrification - at a performance of the New York City Ballet), and this year's - Massenet's delightful Cendrillon - opens with the preparation of another - here exclusively black-tie, in Harry Fehr's contemporary updating.
Set on a four-foot-high traverse stage, with audience on either side - half on the hall's real stage, with the orchestra in front, and the other half facing them on partially raised seating. Like a split-screen we were seeing two houses at once, at one side Lucette curled up in a chair before a television depicting a log-burning fire and below a big red lampshade; on the other a bored Prince Charming in hoodie and Adidas track-suit bottoms (he'd have no trouble getting into the Olympic Park!), desultorily switching channels beneath a glittering chandelier. Separated by the black-and-white chequered flooring, it couldn't be clearer that they were at least a class apart.
But we all know the story of Cinders and how - eventually - she wins her Prince. Massenet's take, first heard in 1899 (though composed four years earlier), was once a rarity, but suddenly two productions come almost at once: Laurent Pelly's 'period' Covent Garden production and this from Blackheath Opera, not least because it is sung in Jeremy Sams's gloriously funny English translation.
You got an idea of the updating before you went in. The programme masquerades as a new 'red-top' (The Halls) in which a Sun-like headline encapsulates the plight of the Prince: "Didn't You Slip 'Er Your Number, Sir?" There's also an advert for a TV programme on ETV - "At home with the Haltières", and you soon see why. Instead of the servants to Pandolfe and his second wife, there are film crews, camera-people, make-up artists and sound recorders, following Mme and her two self-centred daughters in high excitement as they get ready for the Prince's ball. While Blackheath regular Grant Doyle as Pandolfe wrings his hands (and wins the audience's hearts) with his realisation that he shouldn't have married again, bathroom-robed Madame de la Haltière (Louise Winter) is only interested in getting her daughters hitched to the Prince. Swapping white dressing-gowns for black party dresses they head off to the ball leaving Anna Patalong's Lucette behind.
Enter (from a trapdoor in the chequered flooring) Sally Silver's pink fairy and, from all corners of the hall, the massed ladies and in-pyjamas teddy-bear-clutching children of Blackheath, with wings on their backs. Massenet's music here and in the second Act where - in their dreams - they bring the Prince and Cinders together - the effect here was magical. To stand out in the crowd Cinders finds a white dress and sliver slippers and heads off to the ball, where the Prince - reluctantly - has been persuaded by courtiers and the king to attend to choose a bride. Miraculously, Cinders's hearth disappears and the doors to outside are opened for a catwalk procession of 'eligible' princesses-to-be, along a red carpet the whole length of the traverse stage including, as befits the project's inclusivity policy, a suitor in a wheelchair. At the end of the opera a similar stage change transports us to a church, with banks of pews, and a similar walkway, this time of desperate girls who want to try the silver slipper. There are sixteen wedding dresses - including those worn by Noemi and Dorothy - before Lucette, in her work clothes, fits the shoe like a glove.
The Act Two dream-sequence found the community cast manoeuvring two beds for another mirror-image, of Lucette asleep and the Prince ill in bed, around which the Fairy Godmother and her myriad charges conjure the dream. And the professional cast matched the inventiveness of Sean Turner and Harry Fehr with heartbreakingly natural portrayals. There was a palpable feeling urging the two lovers to a happy conclusion and Patalong's sweetly innocent soprano was matched by a lesson in operatic ennui from Stephanie Marshall as the Prince. Four singers from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire took the roles of the two 'ugly' sisters and the two palace ministers, while Community Opera stalwart Tony Brewer took the part of the King. Fun was being had by all.
Nicholas Jenkins coaxed some wonderful music from his orchestra, and the chorus - given the complexity of the staging - fell into place with deceptive ease. The production was (once again) a credit to the whole company and crew. Blackheath Community Opera is now an unmissable fixture in the capital's operatic calendar. It has a fantastic loyal following and Edward Gardner has recently accepted the position of Patron. No news yet as to next year's choice of repertoire, but it will sell-out quickly. Congratulations to Keith Murray, manager of Blackheath Halls, for supporting what must be the most thrilling and telling example of how opera really does have an importance to the community.