By Baneet Sarai
For one night only, the Durham Opera Ensemble’s Opera of Ages graced University College’s Great Hall. The audience, met with a simple, unadorned stage, filed in expecting a production – in director Ava Merrell’s own words – ‘like none other’. This initial sight – the simple staging – juxtaposed the splendour and scale of the performance’s setting, which evoked more of a sense of operatic grandeur than traditional rock’n’roll.
With Merrel promising a range of opera and rock from Monteverdi to Queen, the production began with a particularly beautiful adaption of Mozart’s The Magic Flute Overture, featuring pieces of a well-placed, and surprisingly fitting, bassline from The White Stripes. This initial overture and its effectiveness attest not only to the abilities of musical director Josh Ridley – reflected throughout the production – but to the quality of the orchestra.
The follow up to the impressive introduction was, in comparison, slightly questionable. Two Lovers Sat on a Park Bench by Philip Glass represented a more postmodern opera, and although successful in its own isolated performance, the scene was seemingly at odds with the rest of the production. Moving on to Hai gia vinta la causa, Gus de Tomasso delivered a strong and powerful performance, despite being drowned out by the orchestra in climactic moments. Nevertheless, a strong start.
A lack of stage presence in Patti Smith’s Because the Night was offset by the appearance of the cast supporting in George Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, which began the rock acts for the night. Both performances exhibited impressive vocals, with Cameron Gergett hitting some remarkable notes in the latter. Act One was completed with a mash-up of Verdi’s Va Pensiero with Queen’s We Will Rock You, featuring impeccable timing and an innovative score.
Act Two opened with Rowena’ Ashby’s stirring vocals in Bizet’s Les tringles des sistres tintaient, although somewhat unfortunately overshadowed by some slightly awkward, yet not completely awful, dancing on behalf of the rest of the cast. The audience was then met with angelic vocals in Monteverdi’s Pur ti Miro, followed by our first sighting of an electric guitar (albeit fake), in the very humorous rendition of Highway to Hell, in which the cast’s dancing – and acting, courtesy of Ronan Burke and Cameron Gergett – redeemed itself.
The rest of Act Two saw George Gershwin’s Summertime, while concluding with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. The exploitation of the aisle space, used throughout the performances, was especially effective here. Beginning solely with vocals, the opening, sung within the darkened Hall, constituted one of the most striking points of the entire production. Adding in slight humour (with the appearance of ‘Galileo’ and ‘Figaro’), the end piece was a success in both its vocal standard and production.
Nevertheless, the stand-out performances of the night belonged to the individuals, rather than entire-cast performances. Bathed in blue light, Serena Holbech’s Song to the Moon was the most captivating performance, with impressive vocals and stage presence. Immediately following, both Rosie Burgering and Emily Beringer created a colossal switch in atmosphere with their confident, feisty, and lively performance of Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen, reflected in the only audience participation of the night (in the form of some very enthusiastic clapping). However, arguably the strongest individual piece of the night came from Catherine Bench, with her haunting performance of Henry Purcell’s Cold Genius. Bench’s use of space, body language, facial expression, and – of course – exceptional vocals, created a truly enthralling experience.
Despite the impressive vocal and performance standards, the production left some things to be desired. The constant filing out and filing on of performers after every piece grew monotonous, and the costumes – while not unpleasant – could have risen to the standard of the production slightly more. Nonetheless, there was an effective and interesting use of lighting, with fluorescent – even slightly garish – colours used for some rock pieces, reflecting the change of style and energy from the single toned wash present in the operatic scenes.
Overall, the Durham Opera Ensemble delivered a compelling and musically impressive production, with an inventive and pioneering edge compared to most in student productions. Merrell’s goal of combining rock and opera has been achieved with style, and one can only hope more innovative operas, such as this, are here to stay in Durham.
Photograph:Durham Opera Ensemble production team