Berwick Festival Opera (BFO) charged into its 2018 season at full-tilt this weekend with a truly joyous bar-romp of a show: Donizetti’s ‘Rita’. It is a marvel that Maltings’ CEO Matthew Rooke manages to attract such quality musicians and performers to Berwick, let alone co-create tailormade opera to drop into the nooks and crannies of our historic town – in this case, slap-bang in the Maltings’ Bar – but we’re blooming lucky he does.
The fact that ‘Rita’ (written in 1841) has the plotline of a slapstick soap on amphetamines doesn’t matter a jot. What had the audience pinned to their seats and laughing out loud was the way the orchestra – led by conductor Peter Ford, and the performers – soprano Natasha Day, baritone Job Tomé and tenor Austin Gunn (Rocket Opera co-founder) pay such courteous attention to each other and take such joy in co-creating great music and entertainment.
The trick, Peter Ford told me, in adapting a score for a smaller orchestration is to select instruments that deliver the tone and colour to echo the original. Rooke certainly achieved this and the musicians delivered. Cath Cormie (violin) and Nigel Chandler (cello) and the keys of Julie Aherne provided the cohesion and impetus, and Simon McGann (flute, piccolo) and Sam Lord (clarinet) the light and depth.
The BFO/Rocket Opera partnership has produced consistently high-quality tailored opera entertainment in Berwick, including ‘The Mikado’ and ‘Don Giovanni’ (both conducted by Ford). As Rooke pointed out in his introduction, ‘Rita’ is from the same stable as ‘The Silken Ladder’ (another BFO/Rocket coproduction) – high octane, high jinks, super fun. In short, Rita runs a bar with her bullied and downtrodden second husband Peppe. Her first husband, wife-beater Gasparo, is believed to be dead. However, Gasparo turns up wanting Rita’s death certificate (he thinks she died in a fire) so he can marry his new paramour. Both husbands want shot of Rita and compete to off-load her on each other.
From the moment Natasha Day chased Austin Gunn into the bar, beating him as they went, there was no let-up in performance energy and commitment. What a privilege to be up-close-and-personal with top-class singers who allow their voices to soar around the tight confines of a bar, whilst achieving wink-nod interactions with the audience. London-based Natasha Day’s Rita cut more of a 20s movie-star dash than a barmaid – and, despite her sharp tongue (to Peppe: ‘you’re a wimp and a snowflake’) and psychotic edge, you could kind of see why the men fell for her. Gunn inhabited Peppe’s transformation from shrunken snivelling husk to effervescent free man with a glee encapsulated in his manic opera laugh and triumphant resonant note held for what felt like several joyful minutes. And Job Tomé’s snake-hipped, satin-shirt wearing, double-dealing Gasparo owned the bar with his knowing duplicity and voice shoot-outs with both Gunn and Day.
I love Gunn’s eye for slapstick rhyme and ridiculous verbal contortions in his libretto translations. High spots were Pepe and Gasparo’s masterful duet – where they serenaded the straws they’d drawn in their bid to off-load Rita on each other. Pepe celebrates his ‘lovely sweet straw’, whilst Gasparo berates his ‘reprehensible straw’ (a masterful piece of scanning!). And the gullible Rita muses ‘with just the one arm/he can’t do much harm’ after Gasparo claims to have lost the use of his limb and Peppe relishes the idea that Rita will ‘dominate, frustrate and castrate’ Gasparo!
After the show, I said to Rocket’s Austin Gunn that it would be great to tour this show in pubs round the county. He said he’d love to. If this entertaining, delightful and riotously good fun show ever comes to a bar near you, go see!
A version of this review was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on Thursday 1st March